Identification of ancient charcoal fragments is a valuable tool in reconstructing past environments and determining natural and anthropogenic disturbances, and for understanding past cultures and societies. Although in Europe such studies are fairly straightforward, utilising charcoal records from the tropics is more complicated due to the species-richness of the natural vegetation. Comprehensive databases have greatly aided identification but often identification of charcoalified woods from the tropics relies on minute anatomical features that can be difficult to observe due to preservation or lack of abundance.
This article illustrates the relative potential of four imaging techniques and discusses how they can provide optimal visualisation of charcoal anatomy, such that specific difficulties encountered during charcoal examination can be evaluated and fine anatomical characters can be observed enabling high-level identification of charcoal (and wood) taxa. Specifically reflected Light Microscopy is often used to quickly group large numbers of charcoal fragments into charcoal types. Scanning Electron Microscopy and High-Throughput X-ray Computed Tomography are employed to observe fine anatomical detail. More recently X-ray Computed Tomography at very high resolution has proved successful for imaging hidden or ‘veiled’ anatomical features that cannot be detected on exposed surfaces but need three-dimensional volumetric imaging.
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