Phytoliths and Archaeology; An Amazing Field That Never Gained Popularity (with good Reason)

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Phytoliths are a durable floral microfossil formed by silica absorbed by a plant during its life. Although the usefulness of phytoliths in archaeology has been known for nearly a century, the field (independently) has not attained much popularity. Despite the fact that the yields of evidence and information from phytoliths are truly amazing, the field itself is at times more tedious than dendrochronology, causing a delay in the development of the use of phytoliths, as well as the lack of recognition. Phytoliths have been proven to be useful in a number of studies, ranging from paleo-environments, ancient agriculture, ancient technology, even the diet of particular cultures and their livestock. The largest problem with phytoliths tends to be the inability to identify certain phytoliths or the need to correlate the phytoliths with a different chronologies or reference collections. With all of the uses phytoliths have, these problems seem to be recurrent. However, in order to understand the use of phytoliths, one must first come to a better understanding of what they are.
Numerous sources have different terms for phytoliths, and even go so far as to separate phytoliths into two groups (Schiffer 1983: 227). This is not the case in this paper. The term phytolith will refer to a general definition that is broad and encompasses both of these groups; a phytolith is an opal or silica plant cell (Rapp and Hill 1998: 93). No source is completely sure of the biological purpose of the silica in the plant cells. Phytoliths occur from silica in ground water being absorbed through plants roots and integrated into the living plant (Hertz and Garrison 1998: 55). This silica fills the spaces in the cell and hardens. These cells can endure long after the life of the plant, even through decay and burning (Renfrew and Bahn 2004: 249). However, phytoliths are susceptible to highly alkaline soils, erosion, corrosion, mechanical wear (ploughs) and water damage (Schiffer 1983: 234). The general cell morphology, as well as density and cell wall thickness can affect the durability of phytoliths (Schiffer 1983: 235). Phytoliths first were realized for their usefulness in 1908 by Schellenberg, who noticed phytoliths in archaeological soils from North Kurgan (Herz and Garrison 1998: 55), however it was not again recognized until the 1950’s with Helbaek’s and...

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