Archaeobotanical Database

Archaeobotanical Database

Foods, Herbs, and Spices

Chantel White

Archaeological Teaching Specialist, Anthropology and Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials, Penn Museum

Project Start Date: 
March, 2017

Project Manager:

Sasha Renninger
Digital Humanities Specialist, Penn Museum Library


Julia Bell
CAS '19 (English)

Fabian Toro
CAS '17 (Chemical Engineering)

Madeline Fried
CAS '18 (Fine Arts)

Kevin McKain
Temple University Intern


In order to identify ancient plant species recovered from archaeological sites, an archaeobotanist’s most useful tool is a comparative reference collection. Reference collections typically contain accessions of modern botanical specimens such as seeds, fruits, nut shell, and wood. Archaeobotanists have recently begun to recognize the ways in which various human activities, such as meal preparation and cooking tasks, physically alter the appearance of plant material in unique, identifiable ways. For example, a grain of wheat that was ground using a stone quern thousands of years ago may possess a telltale breakage pattern that can still be recognized today. At the Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials in the Penn Museum, undergraduate and graduate students have been assisting in creating an archaeobotanical collection that includes a large number of experimentally processed plant specimens such as ground cereals, boiled lentils, germinated barley, fermented rice, and even pressed grape skins from winemaking. Most of these specimens were also carbonized (burned) to recreate the preservation conditions frequently found at archaeological sites. High quality digital photographs and 3D scans of each botanical specimen have been obtained using a Keyence VHX Digital Microscope and will be made available online as part of a searchable database of images designed to assist other researchers and scholars in the identification of archaeobotanical food remains across the Mediterranean and beyond.


Detailed images of Mediterranean fruits and seeds from the collection (onion, pistachio, alfalfa, and Cornelian cherry).