Using floristic characteristics of contemporary vegetation for identifying archaeological sites: Tel ‘Eton archaeological site as a test case

in Israel Journal of Plant Sciences
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Over the last century, crosstalk between archaeologists and botanists had focused on the identification of plants remnants, such as charcoal or seeds found in archaeological inventory. Here we demonstrate how botany can play a fundamental role in identifying ancient landscape by using current vegetation. Identifying the loci of ancient human activity is the initial step of any archaeological study, enabling analyses such as settlement patterns, economic structures and land use, as well as devising excavations strategy. While mounds (tells) are standing out of their surroundings and are easily detected, other sites are hidden underground, and require various methods for detection. The cost and intensity of these methods vary, but most are time-consuming, require a team of specialists, and show somewhat limited success, leading archaeologists to seek new methods of site detection. Here, we describe a study of vegetational parameters at Tel ‘Eton (Israel), located in a semi-arid climatic region, where vegetation is mostly herbaceous, mainly comprised of annual plants. We compared above ground biomass, species richness and species composition among four plots in Tel ‘Eton and its surrounding. Two plots were located where ancient settlement found in a previous study, one on top of the mound and one below, where a “lower city” was previously identified. The other two plots were located in similar topographies, namely one on a hill and the other below, but in never-settled areas. While above ground biomass was similar between settled and not-settled plots, species richness was significantly higher in settled plots (40 and 32 species in settled plots, versus 28 and 9 species in non-settled) and species composition was significantly different between them. Our results demonstrate that loci of buried remains of human activity significantly differ from non-settled ones, hence providing the basis for an above ground indirect method of identification of human remains. We propose that floristic sampling of ground-level vegetation may allow archaeologists to identify buried sites, and hence increase the validity of various types of archaeological analyses, such as creating maps of settlements, which rely on the identification of sites without excavating them.

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Figures
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    Location of Tel ‘Eton and sampling plots. A. Location of Tel ‘Eton, as well as other archaeological sites of similar age, on the background of a precipitation map of Israel. B. View of the northern part of the mound and its surrounding from the South. Letters denote the study sampling units (plots).Figure 1. (Cont.).

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    Dry biomass of above ground herbaceous vegetation in 25 × 25 cm quadrates. Bars are means ± standard errors. Bars with different letters denote significantly different values (P < 0.05; Tukey post-hoc test).

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    Mean number of plant species in 25 × 25 cm quadrates. Bars are means ± standard errors. Bars with different letters denote significantly different values (P < 0.05; Tukey post-hoc test on ln-transformed data).

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    Multidimensional scaling of vegetation samples in the four plots, based on species composition.

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