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Today no excavation is complete without a report on crop seeds and other paleobotanical material retrieved from lower strata of the land. With this objective in mind, our team designed and built a flotation device during the second season of digging at Site 11. To my knowledge this was the first such machine in all of Italy. But our results were indeed meager and provided no conclusive evidence.

Because of this failure at flotation we sought the help of Willem van Zeist, the director of the Biologisch-Archaeologisch Instituut, Rijksuniversiteit, Groningen, the Netherlands. Professor van Zeist agreed to take on the project, not directly but by sending a technician who could work with us in the field. Henk Woldrig joined us at the Via Gabina Sites twice for two weeks each during the 1982 and 1983 seasons of excavation. His method was sieving the earth rather than relying on flotation. Yet with all this work little of what was sent back to Gronigen for analysis by van Zeist proved helpful. I here quote from one of van Zeist’s reports:
Your seed sample from Via Gabina arrived safely. I must disappoint you in that the seeds are not carbonized and that they do not represent crop plants. I doubt whether the seeds had been deposited in the “rather deep layer” through the activity of man. I rather suspect burrowing animals.

Most common are the seeds of Silybum marianum (holy thistle). The sample contained further a few seeds of Rumex cf. crispus (curled dock), one Fumaria (fumitory) seed, two charcoal fragments, two snails and some insect remains. One type of plant remains, consisting of parts of an inflorescence, remains unidentified (at least for the time being).

I am very sorry that I cannot inform you of more exciting results.

By 1984 our efforts to obtain paleobotanical insights ceased. It had become obvious that our earth cover both above and below floor levels was too slight to produce any meaningful carbonized seeds. Also we needed to take into account that ploughing today often reaches bedrock. The less than one meter of topsoil was both a blessing and a spoiler.

Walter M. Widrig


All text and images copyright © 2002 by Walter Widrig and Rice University. Last updated June 2005 by