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Charcoal Analysis

Charred wood is one of the most frequently recovered material remains that is recovered from archaeological sites across the world. Wood has been, and continues to be, used for a wide variety of everyday activities such as utensil, furniture and structure manufacture and as a major source of fuel. It can therefore provide information on activities undertaken at the site, the palaeovegetation and palaeoclimate of an area and it can be used to examine land management practices such as coppicing.

Each wood taxon has a unique set of anatomical characteristics that are used to help identify ancient woods from archaeological sites. Once charred wood becomes extremely durable and in general specimens retain their internal and external structures very well. Anatomical features used for identification can be viewed on three fracture planes. Identifications are made using a binocular reflected light microscope at 50-500x magnification and through comparison with modern reference material held at the Institute of Archaeology and material published in identification manuals.

Charcoal from excavations carried out by Archaeology South-East is recovered as spot finds on site or through processing bulk environmental samples. This charcoal is sub-sampled and analysed to provide taxon identifications and information on the conditions of deposition. The data is then interpreted using comparisons with modern ecological requirements and growth tendencies to provide an image of the past vegetation and the types of vegetation stand that were exploited for wood resources. Spatial distributions of taxa across features in the site can reveal evidence for different activity centres and can lead to a better understanding of wood resource selection and management.

The in-house charcoal specialist has expertise in analysing charcoal from British and southern African archaeological sites and offers this specialist service to commercial and academic archaeology units from both regions. The aims of the analysis can be tailored to the project, whether single identifications or full large assemblage analysis and report writing/publication are required.

Contact: Lucy Allott



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