Environmental archaeology covers several different research areas and methods, all aimed at studying the ancient human being and her relationship with the environment. It is an interdisciplinary subject that consists of both the humanities and natural sciences, which makes it possible to collaborate with researchers from various areas of knowledge and research.
Diatom analysis (Siliceous microfossils)
Diatoms are single-celled algae, found in nearly all fresh and saline environments, often in high abundances and species richness. Diatoms are good bioindicators of past and present water quality changes because of their well-documented taxonomy and autecology and fast response (within days) to a range of environmental factors such as salinity, water depth and nutrient availability changes. Due to their siliceous skeleton, diatoms have high preservation potential in sediments over geological time-scales. The application of diatoms in paleoenvironmental studies has a long tradition. Variations in diatom assemblages in sediment sequences can reveal changes in paleo-hydrological conditions with high accuracy and resolution in various environmental settings.
Microfossil of the species Campylodiscus bicostatus photographed using a scanning electron microscope
Fossil insects analysis (Paleoentomology)
Insects, the most common family of animals on the Earth, have very specific habitat and food requirements, and so can accurately represent the environment of the deposits in which they are found. There are species which, especially within the context of Northern environments, are almost specifically anthopocentric. They can only survive in the microenvironments created by human activities. Others feed only on particular plant or animal types, and, for example, can tell us much about stocking levels and fodder requirements. Additionally, insects are excellent indicators of environmental conditions, and with good sampling can give high resolution data on landscape and climate change.
The research database and computer program BugsCEP has been developed at MAL as part of an international cooperation project to facilitate the interpretation of insect data.
Insect of the species Cetonia aurata
Insect remains from an archaeological examination in Reykholt, Iceland
The geochemical properties of soils can be excellent indicators of past activities, both human and natural. For example, buried soils can tell us about ancient farming practices, lake sediments record the level of erosion in their catchment. Variations in the chemical components within a soil may indicate the changes in organic input, be it the location of corpses, or the fertilisation of fields. Further more the actual structure of the soil can be changed by human interference. Such factors can be observed through analysis of the Soil Micromorphology, and Soil Chemistry. Soil science also encompasses a variety of prospection techniques.
Near Infrared Spectroscopy
This method is currently under development as a tool for analyzing sediments and other archaeological material.
One of the most common remains to be found on an archaeological site are those of seeds, which, especially if charred, can survive in situations where the general preservation is poor. Seeds, and other remains of plant such as woody stems, or actual leaf and moss fragments, are particularly important when examined with respect to their probably origins. That is to say they may have grown on the spot where the sample is taken, or have been transported to the spot from elsewhere. Within archaeology the allochthanous deposition of plant parts is of great interrest, especially when the relocation of plants parts could be the result of human activities.
Pollen analysis (Palynology)
Pollen can remain preserved in waterlogged deposits for several millenia, and as such is a valuable palaeoenvironmental indicator. The vegetation composition of an area directly affects, and is frequently affected by, the local human and animal populations. The pollen record very often displays these interactions for the period of deposition, and so provides useful markers in prehistory. An extensive reference set of pollen diagrams exist which can be used to quickly place a profile of samples into the sequence of vegetational changes which have occurred in the local area. In addition climatic inference can be taken from the interpreted vegetational composition.
Wood species analysis
Identification of the tree species found at a site can give valuable information on resource utilisation, trade and climate. It is also essential if the wood is to be carbon dated