Edward Standall

Plants in Pots: The Molecular and Isotopic Identification of Cereals in Archaeological Ceramics

Supported by

Wellcome Trust

Experiments replicating past processing methods of millet and rice will underpin archaeological investigations of organic residues.

Start Date: October 2017
End Date: September 2020
Themes: The 'lives' of objects from their making, use, reception, loss, collection and later use and understanding. What objects can reveal about the social, cultural, religious, creative and political history of their makers, users, owners, depositors and collectors. How objects and their histories can most effectively be presented, exhibited and explored through different media and forms of public and learning programmes.
Research discipline: Archaeology, Anthropology, Scientific Research
Location: East Asia, Europe
Staff member: Carl Heron
Departments: Scientific Research
University and department: University of York, Archaeology (BioArCh)
University supervisor: Oliver Craig

Does rice contain biomarkers that can be used to identify its presence in archaeological material?

Rice cannot be distinguished from the majority of staple plant products through the analysis of stable carbon isotopes. As a result a biomarker would be required to identify rice in archaeological material.

Does the method used to process cereals effect the molecular and isotopic composition of their constituent compounds?

Thermal, oxidative and microbial alteration can effect compounds in a wide variety of ways, many of which we do not fully understand.

How can experimental studies best be applied to the study of organic residues?

In archaeology we study the end result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of degradation. Experimental material can help us bridge the gap in time but to what extent is debatable.

About my research

At present, the study of organic residues in archaeological material has centered on animal products. Ruminant/non-ruminant, dairy, wild, and marine animal products have been identified in archeological contexts following significant experimental research. However, consumable plant products have not been subjected to the same level of investigation in either archaeological material or experimental research.

In general, plant products are comprised of proportionally less lipids than animal products. As a result, these products have been difficult to identify by organic residue analysis in archaeological material. Exceptions being C4 plants that are isotopically distinct when introduced to C3 plant environments, i.e. maize and millet. However, experimental research has shown that isotopic values cannot always be relied upon to prove presence or absence. Therefore this project aims to investigate and develop upon established isotopic and biomarker approaches to identify millet and rice use in prehistoric materials from recently excavated sites and museum collections.


Asset No. 1613347500 (Possible food residue on surface of ceramic)


Aims of my research

• Investigate the effects that processing methods may have on organic residues produced by millet and rice
• Identify the percentage contribution of millet needed to significantly influence carbon isotope values
• Examine the organic residues produced by different species and varieties of millet and rice
• Investigate the introduction of millet into European sites in prehistory
• Understand how archaeologists may better plan and perform experiments to investigate the impact of cooking and processing variables on absorbed organic residues