Friday, 31 July 2015

New environmental archaeology guidelines

Researchers in environmental archaeology often analyse disparate datasets through time and space to come up with 'the big picture'. For example, we may wish to track the types of cereals being consumed at different locations, from small-scale excavations at ephemeral campsites up to very large-scale excavations at enclosed settlements.  In order to allow robust analyses, it is important that there is a standardised approach towards environmental sampling, analysing and reporting. In Ireland, unfortunately, this was not the case in recent years. Many different sampling, analysing and reporting styles emerged over the past two decades. Unsurprisingly, this made ‘big-data’ analyses more challenging for researchers. Environmental archaeologists began to recognise this problem over the last few years, and we decided to do something about it. No point in complaining unless you’re willing to be part of the solution!

Several of us started work with archaeologists at the National Roads Authority* in Ireland to develop guidelines on the retrieval, analysis and reporting of palaeoenvironmental remains recovered during archaeological excavations on road schemes. The NRA is the largest procurer of archaeological services in the Republic of Ireland, which means that the guidelines would have a very big impact on archaeological practice here. The guidelines have now been completed and published (download them here.), and are being implemented on NRA archaeology projects across Ireland. The guidelines enable a standardised approach, ensuring that palaeoenvironmental work conforms to the best professional standards, and is focused on achieving high-quality and scientifically meaningful results.

The guidelines focus on certain categories of remains, including plant macro-remains, charcoal, wood, pollen and insects. The guidelines were written by Dr Meriel McClatchie, who is an expert in non-wood plant remains, and Dr Ellen O Carroll, who is an expert in charcoal, wood and pollen analysis. Contributions on insects were also provided by Dr Eileen Reilly, who is also an expert in this area.

The NRA is now leading the way in Ireland in implementing best practice in environmental archaeology. We are keen to promote best practice more widely in Irish archaeology, so watch this space for further developments.
* Note that the NRA will soon be no more, because it is joining forces with the Railway Procurement Agency to form a new organisation, Transport Infrastructure Ireland. But the guidelines will still apply!

About the author

This article was written by Dr Meriel McClatchie, who is an archaeobotanist. Meriel recently started work on an INSTAR-funded project on late prehistoric landscapes, based at the Department of Archaeology, University College Cork. Meriel also has her own blog: Ancient Food and Farming.