Ancient Environment Initiative

The AEI reconstructs the landscapes identified by ancient authors as core production areas for key botanical commodities. Within those environments, we are studying the resiliency traits of crop species, and working in the lab to identifying bioactive compounds in medicinal plants identified by ancient authors to understand how microclimate can effect their potency and efficacy. Through this interdisciplinary research, the AEI is refining translations of plant species and landscape classes in classical sources.

Medicinal Microclimates: Environmental Variability and Ancient Medicines

Many ancient authors – from Hippocrates to the Middle Ages – noticed that the same species of medicinal plant grown in different environments could vary significantly in their medicinal, cosmetic, or aromatic character. They even went so far as to “rank” plants of the same species: Iris (probably I. germanicus) from Illyria and Macedonia, for example, was said to be both more potent and aromatic than those from Libya (Diosc. DMM 1.1.); storax (S. Officinalis) from Turkey was said to be of better quality than that from Crete (Pliny HN 12.126). Environmental science has already demonstrated intra-specific phytochemical diversity in a host of common Mediterranean species such as oak and olive, and recent developments in plant biology now help us to understand how these environmental stressors impact plant chemistry. Birney Lab is harnessing these new approaches to study ancient medicinal plants.

Birney Lab is engaged in systematic collection and fingerprinting of modern botanical reference samples of ancient medicinal plants across a range of geographies and ecologies, to study their chemotaxonomic variability in relation to microclimate. We are then drawing on archaeological data, environmental science, and classical texts to reconstruct the landscapes in where such plants were grown in the ancient Mediterranean.

The Medicinal Microclimate Project enhances our understanding of pharmaceutical plant use in ancient medical texts (and the archaeological record), and may return needed attention to species whose pharmacological value was praised by ancient authors, but which have since been dismissed or overlooked by modern labs who were looking to plant profiles from different ecological niches.

Student researchers from Archaeology, Biology, Chemistry, Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and Classical Studies are contributing to the project.

Archaeological Residues as Proxies for Palaeoenvironment

Traditionally, reconstructions of palaeoenvironment have relied upon palaoebotanical and palynological (pollen) data to reconstruct local flora and ecological landscapes. Archaeological organic residues – extracted from containers carrying commodities, or from artifacts – can be used to confirm these data streams. However residues can also preserves signatures of plant species whose remains are not normally preserved in the botanical or pollen record, and which would otherwise be completely invisible.

This project brings together ceramic petrography, the geological “fingerprinting” of ceramic containers to determine their place of manufacture, and archaeological chemistry, to identify the organic signatures of plant species and connect them with locally-produced (rather than imported) ancient containers. The Proxy Project helps us to confirm and enrich existing reconstructions of local ecological landscapes and commercial practices at specific archaeological sites.