The three-year research project that I have just started, and which will be starring in this blog, goes by the name of “The Agricultural Origins of Urban Civilisation” project – or AGRICURB for short.
My part in this is as one of the post-doctoral research assistants, responsible in particular for developing and refining ways to glean as much useful information as possible from the chemicals within the bones and charred plant remains that are found on archaeological sites. Using modern crops as our guinea pigs, we can alter the growing conditions of those crops and measure certain characteristics, which we can then search for in the archaeological crop remains. We are also hoping to find out where crops were grown – close or far away from the settlements – again, using what we know about modern crops to refine our methods.
Of course, ancient farmers weren’t growing their crops under nicely controlled conditions, such as those that are maintained on our modern experimental plots (like Rothamsted). The controlled growing conditions help us to identify the effect of e.g. a higher quantity of manure application on the nitrogen in cereal grains. To get a more realistic impression of the variability in ancient crops, we must go and visit some traditional farmers and look at their crops.