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[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #6: Angelica, Wild

January 26, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. Today’s species, another plant, is a native herb.

An eighteenth century drawing of the parts of wild angelica
Angelica sylvestris. From Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany. Source: (Public Domain)

Angelica, Wild

Angelica sylvestris L.

Also called holy ghost, apparently for its ‘angel-like properties’ 

A tall plant in the carrot family with hollow purplish stems, found in fens, meadows and woods on non-acidic moist soils. It bears umbels of minute white flowers in late summer. It has aromatic flowers. Stalks of the closely related garden angelica are candied by soaking in a sugar solution to make cake decorations, but the leaves, stalks and seeds are edible (although stalks can be very tough). Angelica is a source of vitamin C.

Angelica silvestris on the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #5: Alkanet, Green

January 21, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. Today’s plant is a dye plant.

Overblijvende ossentong Pentaglottis sempervirens closeup

Green alkanet, image by Wikimedia user Rasbak, CC BY-SA 3.0

Alkanet, Green 

Pentaglottis sempervirens (L.) Tausch ex L.H.Bailey
A hairy-leaved plant of roadsides and woodland margins bearing bright blue flowers with an attractive white centre. It grows where soils are moist and not acidic. It is an introduced species, most likely deliberately so during the medieval period as its roots are a source of red dye. The name alkanet, which is applied to a number of plants that yield red dyes in Europe and Asia is ultimately derived from the Arabic al-ḥinnā, referring to henna plants.

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #4: Alexanders

January 19, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. Today’s post is an edible, introduced species, with an unusual, highly aromatic Angelica-like flavour.

Alexanders growing next to the New Cut, Bristol, January 2021
Alexanders in January 2021, Bristol. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)


Smyrnium olusatrum L.

Also known as alisanders, horse parsley, stanmarch, or black lovage. 

A bushy herbaceous plant within the same family as parsley and carrots, which grows up to 1.2m tall. It is common in hedgebanks and on waste ground, especially by the sea, and bears umbels of yellow-green flowers from April to June. Its leaves are glossy and toothed and are arranged in groups of three at the end of the leaf stalk. 

It is a native of the circum-Mediterranean region, and was introduced to Britain by the Romans as a pot herb. Its young stems and leaves have an angelica-like flavour, and can be eaten raw in salads. The flower-buds can be pickled. The roots may be used as an alternative to parsnip. Young stems may also be cooked in boiling water for not more than ten minutes, and served with butter. Older stems are likely to be extremely tough. The seeds may also be eaten, and are strongly aromatic.

Smyrnium olusatrum fruitlets at the Digital Plant Atlas

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #3: Alder

January 15, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here.

Common alder tree in winter, Bristol, UK. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)


Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertn.

Also known as Black alder or European alder, and formerly as aller.

A common waterside tree in Britain and Ireland, recognisable by its black, fissured bark and broad hairless green leaves, alder is part of the birch family. The horizontal fissures are corky in texture and known as lenticels. The male flowers are yellow to red catkins that appear in August and open to release pollen the following spring. The female flowers are egg-shaped cones that start green and turn purple and eventually brown. In winter and early spring, the leaf buds are purplish and held on short stalks. 

Its timber is a yellowish colour and turns orange and eventually red on felling. It is soft, weak and perishable when dry, but it is water-resistant once dried and does not split when nails are driven into it. It has traditionally been used in the manufacture of the soles of shoes and clogs, for broom handles, for water-front revetments, for piles in boggy ground, and for water-pipes. It can be used dry for turnery, for example to manufacture platters. Alder roundwood was used for structural posts in wetlands in prehistory, for example it was among the species used in the Sweet Track that was built across Somerset wetlands around 3200BC. Both Vitruvius and Pliny enthusiastically describe alder’s durability in wet or boggy conditions. Pliny also described the tuber, the protuberance or burl that forms on the trunk of alder, as having an interesting grain and being useful for veneers. Four alder wood shoe soles are known from Luguvalium, Roman Carlisle. Alder shields are known onwards from the Bronze Age, for example there were several examples at the Iron Age cemetery site of Garton Station, East Yorkshire.  A Bronze Age child burial at Barrow Hills, Oxfordshire, was in an alder coffin into which six red deer antlers had been placed, along with a cattle skull and a bone from a pig trotter.  An alder wood club of Neolithic date was recovered from the Thames foreshore at Chelsea. 

Blocks of alder wood are used in glassmaking to manufacture moulds, as the wood produces such a soft carbon layer in contact with molten glass that very little of the pattern of the grain is transferred.

Charcoal from alder wood was valued in the manufacture of gunpowder because it gives rise to particular mix of carbon, sulphur and potassium nitrate , and alder coppices in the New Forest, the Lake District and near Waltham Abbey supplied local gunpowder factories. Alder twigs are suitable for use as fodder for livestock.

Alder bark produces a red dye and also a tanning agent, being around 16-20% tannin content. The fresh wood produces a pinky-fawn dye, the young shoots produce yellow, and the catkins green. 

Elsewhere in northern Eurasia, the Koryak or Kuriak of the Kamchatka Peninsula in the far east of Russia see alder as a special tree able to protect humans from evil spirits.

Alder is also valued as a growing tree for its ability to provide protection to river banks against erosion. In addition to common alder, other species are often planted, especially Italian alder (Alnus cordata), Grey alder (Alnus incana) and Green alder (Alnus veridis).

Alnus glutinosa female catkins, leaf buds, and male catkins. Specimens collected Bristol, UK, January 2021. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Seeds of Alnus glutinosa, Alnus veridis and Alnus incana
Alder seeds. L- R Alnus glutinosa, Alnus veridis, Alnus incana. All specimens collected in Bristol, UK in January 2021. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Common alder leaf buds on WikiArc

Alnus glutinosa on Microscopic Wood Anatomy

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #2: Agrimony

January 12, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. The second species is a wildflower that gives us a yellow dye and which has medicinal uses.

Scientific illustration of Agrimony
Agrimonia eupatoria. Public Domain,


Agrimonia eupatoria L.

Also known as lemmade, bunchflower, church steeples or sticklewort

A perennial plant which bears long spikes of small starry yellow flowers in summer and autumn. Found on roadsides and in hedgebanks throughout Britain and Ireland, avoiding acid soils and particularly shaded environments. Its pinnate leaves are apricot-scented, and are used to make a herbal tea which has been used by herbalists in the treatment of liver complaints. The plant is also a source of tannin, and the young tops have been used to produce a yellow dye. Archaeologically, the hooked structure surrounding the fruit, the hypanthia, are sometimes preserved along with seeds.

See Agrimonia eupatoria fruits and seeds on the Digital Seed Atlas (opens new tab)

[An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species] #1: Acacia, False

January 7, 2021

In 2021, I am blogging an A-Z compendium of human interactions with species in the British landscape. A list of references for information used in this series can be found here. The first species is a relatively recent addition to the British landscape

Acacia, False

Robinia pseudoacacia L. 

Also known as black locust, Honey locust or locust tree

False Acacia tree in winter. Photo by Matt Law CC BY-SA 4.0

A deciduous tree, native to North America, especially the southeastern United States, in the pea and bean family. It was introduced to Britain in the 17th century and was popularised as a rapidly growing source of timber in the 19th century. It is a ring-porous wood with narrow earlywood zone with large pores and a latewood zone with few, rather small pores. In its native North America, its small white flowers have been eaten as a sweet treat and used to make a tea, the young seed pods eaten as a vegetable, and the seeds themselves boiled and eaten. The bark, leaves and wood are toxic however.

Three seeds of Robinia pseudoacacia
Seeds of Robinia pseudoacacia. Small squares are 1mm. Photo by Matt Law. CC BY-SA 4.0

New Year, New Blogging Project

January 7, 2021

I miss blogging. Over the past few years, my blog output has declined to an unsteady trickle of announcements, and even then I haven’t shared some of the things I’m most happy with here. But blogging was attractive to me because it gave me an opportunity to shape ideas and think out loud or explore new technologies and apps before committing to use them for work (or otherwise). One of the things I think about most often is animals and plants in the landscape, and people’s relationships with them. This year then, I am resolving to openly learn more about human interactions with different species in the British landscape and compile my learning into an A-Z compendium, which I’m calling An Archaeologist’s Guide to British Species. I’m aiming to post twice per week – we’ll see how this goes.

I should say, I’m taking a liberal definition of ‘British’ species – including some quite recent introductions, but which are features of the modern British landscape. I use ‘British’ here largely as a short hand for the island of Great Britain, although I will be making reference to some other islands in this archipelago (and indeed to the European mainland).

Comments in the form of feedback or more information about the species are especially welcome, even more so if they point me to references.

Seminar Tonight: Using Stories to Engage in Research – climate theatre and The Last Hurrah (and The Long Haul)

May 27, 2020

At 6pm (BST) tonight, Rew Lowe (Bath Spa University Senior Lecturer in Acting) and I will be guests of the Creative Corporealities Research Group discussion series, where we will be talking about storytelling for research, and especially our climate theatre project The Last Hurrah (and The Long Haul). From the CCRG facebook post:

The Last Hurrah is a professional theatre company, a practice-based research project investigating how climate change might be communicated to move people to behavioural/political change and a vocational training project which seeks to ‘bridge’ undergraduate and professional experiences in creating new, socially relevant, touring theatre. Over the last three years, students and lecturers from Bath Spa University’s BA Acting, Geography and Theatre, Festival and Event Production programmes have collaborated on researching true stories of how climate change is currently affecting specific communities around the world. The Last Hurrah (and The Long Haul) is, albeit very loosely, based on the story of Kivalina in Northern Alaska.

Rew Lowe is a theatre-maker, director and writer (Bristol Old Vic, Tobacco Factory, Lyric Hammersmith). He’s a Senior Lecturer in Comedy, Devising and Dramaturgy at Bath Spa.

Matt Law is an environmental archaeologist for ‘Geography’ at Bath Spa, teaching climate change, sustainability, Quaternary palaeoecology, GIS and prehistory. He’s Lead Researcher for The Last Hurrah.”
Email me, or comment here, for a link to the talk.

Archaeo+Malacology Newsletter Issue 33 now published

February 10, 2020

Issue 33 of the AMWG newsletter, for all those interested in molluscs and archaeology, is now available. It is my first issue as editor, and features articles on clumped carbonate isotope analysis by Philip Staudigel; on recent archaeomalacology in South America by Sandra Gordillo, and a small contribution I wrote about variable preservation in land snail assemblages.

Framing a research sustainability statement

January 16, 2020

As a university-based researcher, I am required to submit an assessment of the ethical considerations of my research projects, as well as risks and a plan for how research data will be managed securely. For my current research project, The Last Hurrah, which looks at how theatre can engage audiences with issues of climate change, I also wanted an explicit statement of the environmental sustainability of the research project. To me, this was important because it provides an outline of our intent that we can then bring to bear in our decision making.

In this case, I have written one for a small part of the project which involves myself and a research assistant interviewing the cast, which is quite low hanging fruit for sustainability, as there is not much transport nor procurement involved. Projects such as overseas excavations will inevitably be more difficult.

Sustainability Statement

To frame the sustainability statement, I considered three key impacts of the research project – carbon and energy management, sustainable and ethical procurement, and waste and resource management, and wrote an overarching aim with at least one specific objective for each. Bath Spa University’s sustainability manager, Dr Julian Greaves, was kind enough to review the text.

We have been working with this statement for six months now, and I have found it helpful as a check point against which I can review project decisions. I will certainly carry on this practice for future projects, and try to be more ambitious with my commitments. Thoughts about improvements are very welcome.