Historic Sites

Historic Sites are as diverse as history itself. Yet, there are components that lend themselves to interpretation based on archaeobotanic evidence. First, areas of the site associated with food processing or discard are prime candidates for sampling for pollen, phytoliths, starch, and macrofloral remains. Add to this our ability to identify organic residues using the FTIR and more information emerges from these contexts. Floors are often sources of information. Dirt floors are obvious sources of remains. It is interesting that samples collected beneath wood floors often yield evidence of foods consumed, as an example from a saloon in Alaska showed. Not only did we recover evidence of foods, but parasite eggs were present, as well, providing more information concerning the clientele.


Privies provide a collection of debris that has passed through the human body, representing consumption of foods, medicine, and perhaps other items. Many physical items, as well as food debris, are also discarded in privies. Once again, the entire suite of samples (pollen, phytolith, starch, macrofloral remains, and FTIR analysis) is recommended.

Pollen is present on some foods such as broccoli because they are edible flowers or flower buds. Pollen might cling to vegetables such as tomatoes, green beans, other beans, and squash, and to fruits such as grapes, currants and strawberries. Spices such as cloves are represented in the pollen record, because cloves are flower buds. Cereal grain pollen and even tobacco pollen has been recovered in privies.

Phytoliths include both silica bodies and calcium oxalates. Silica bodies are common in corn cobs and glumes (those papery things that get stuck between your teeth when you eat corn-on-the-cob). Dried fecal remains contain calcium oxalates more commonly than do sediments from the same sites, so they are expected to be recovered as part of the phytolith record in privies. Recovery of these bodies indicates foods consumed.

Starch is an important component of many staple foods. Many starches are dissolved in the digestive tract, beginning in the mouth with saliva but some survive to be deposited in privies. Cereal grains have starches that can be specifically diagnostic of grains such as wheat, oats, or barley. Potatoes have a very specific and easily recognized starch. Starches provide the best evidence of the presence of potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and a variety of other starchy, edible roots and tubers.

Seeds are present in privies when the parts of plants consumed contained seeds. The most notable examples are fruits such as raspberries (and related berries), strawberries, blueberries, etc. Figs also fall in this group, although in North America they also are indicators of trade and transportation. Seeds such as apple might be consumed by some people, but not others. Recovery of cherry and plum seeds is expected to reflect discard of debris into privies. Mustard, sage, and coriander seeds might be present through use of condiments.

Parasites are recovered in most privies. Throughout much of North America Ascaris (roundworm) and Trichuris (whipworm) are common. As people traveled they took their diseases and parasites with them, depositing evidence in areas where parasites could not live year round outside the human body.

Wood/Charcoal recovered from privies might reflect construction elements or perhaps discard of debris into the privy. Alternatively, it might reflect discard of fireplace or firepit ash or perhaps even the presence of small pieces of charcoal in the air in industrial areas.