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Archaeobiology Laboratories

In July of 2011, the Museum of Anthropological Archaeology decided to combine its ethnobotanical and zooarchaeological holdings into a single collection—Archaeobiology—to be curated by Kent V. Flannery. In so doing, Michigan was following in the footsteps of the Smithsonian Institution, which had created a similar Archaeobiology program in the decade of the 1990s. Their goal at that time was to emphasize that the future of archaeobiological research lay not in gross morphology, but in studies of plant and animal DNA, phytoliths, starch grains, and other more recently developed techniques.  

Flannery’s first official act was to contact the Smithsonian, to see whether their Archaeobiology program would like to collaborate with Michigan’s. They voted enthusiastically to do so, and entered into discussion of a series of joint investigations of the origins of agriculture and animal domestication.

The History of Archaeobiology 1 (Flora) Collection

When the University of Michigan hired Dr. Melvin R. Gilmore in 1929, he was instructed to develop a laboratory for the identification of archaeological plant remains from North America. To create the laboratory, Gilmore assembled a comparative collection of taxonomically authenticated wood, seeds, and domesticated plant parts, and files documenting their use by Native Americans. With the aid of Volney Jones, first as his assistant and later his successor, Gilmore built the largest ethnobotanical collection in North America. Jones, a truly modest yet enormously knowledgeable scholar, contributed much of the data in the files on plant use.  

This collection continues to grow as new excavations are conducted in North America and elsewhere in the world. Generations of Museum curators and graduate students have contributed plant material to the collection following their fieldwork.     

One of the earliest research projects in the ethnobotanical laboratory, initiated by Volney Jones in 1954, was a project to produce “A Compendium of Data on Economic Botany of the Southwest.” Through funding by the university’s graduate school, Jones and Vorsila Bohrer created a taxonomic list of economic plants from the Southwest that could then be cross-indexed by native group and category of use. For more than thirty years and through various funding sources, data were collected by using a punch card system. In 2004, Richard I. Ford began the long and arduous task of digitizing the data. The results of more than four years of work culminated in the Southwest Traditional Ethnic Group Plant Use Database. For more information on the history of the creation of the database and its importance in ethnobotanical research, please read the report entitled History of the Database. To make specific inquiries, please read How to Search the Database.

Archaeobiology 1 remains a unique collection because it is both an extensive set of archaeological and recent plant parts from around the world, and an archive of ethnographic data on how these plants are collected, stored, processed and utilized by indigenous groups. Use of the collections has led so far to the publication of 596 papers on indigenous use of plants.

Rehousing the Archaeobiology 1 Collection

In 2009 the National Science Foundation awarded the Museum a $482,000 grant to rehouse the approximately 35,000 objects that comprise the Archaeobiology 1 collection. A new assistant collections manager, Jamie Merkel, was hired to implement and oversee the project.

During this project—November 2009 through November 2012—each object in the collection in the main laboratory was rehoused in state-of-the-art boxes and vials, and placed in new powder-coated enameled steel cabinets. The new boxes have plastic lids that allow the objects inside to be seen without having to open the box, minimizing the handling of objects.   

The first objects to be rehoused were the collections of corn. The Museum has a large collection of North American corn from the early to mid-20th century, and a large collection of corn from Jemez Cave, New Mexico. These collections offer research potential to those conducting genetic and DNA analyses as well as other kinds of studies.

Rehousing the Fiber Collection

UMMA 24448: Southwest United States Sandal

The second phase of the project—rehousing our fiber collection—was completed in September, 2010. We have fibers from archaeological sites such as Jemez Cave, New Mexico, and Newt Kash Hollow, Kentucky. Ethnographic fibers were collected while Gilmore and Jones et al. were in the field. Items in our fiber collections include twine, sandals, textiles, and basketry.

Rehousing the Wood Collections

Wood collection rehoused in new acid free boxes and archivally sound cabinets

Archaeobiology 1 has a large comparative wood collection, created to aid researchers in the identification of wood samples collected during ethnographic field studies and archaeological excavations. The collection is largely comprised of cross sections and segments of branches from angiosperms, gymnosperms, and woodlike monocots, as well as charred samples of each. The majority of the wood in the collection is from species found in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. A smaller percentage of the collection is composed of archaeological remains and ethnographic objects composed of wood or charred remains. The collection was fully rehoused by 2011 and is now available for researchers.

The History of Archaeobiology 2 (Fauna) Collections

Prior to the late 1960s, the Museum of Anthropology had no faunal collection. Fortunately, we share a building with the Museum of Zoology, who has been a very good neighbor over the years. During the 1950s and 1960s, archaeology students could identify the fauna from their excavations using the collections of the Museum of Zoology.

When Dr. Kent V. Flannery was hired in 1967, he brought with him two rough-and-ready collections of zoological comparative material from Iran and Mexico, where he had worked on the origins of animal domestication. He quickly realized that his students badly needed a laboratory of zooarchaeology. Flannery therefore converted his personal layout space to a zooarchaeology lab and allowed many of his animal skeletons to be accessioned into it.  

Over the years the Zooarchaeology collections grew, as curators and graduate students returned from the field with more skeletons. Major contributions were made by future zooarchaeologists such as Katherine Moore, Karen Mudar, Richard Redding, and Melinda Zeder.

Today, Archaeobiology 2 has more than 400 skeletons of fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. While the areas from which they come include North America, Latin America, the Near East, Europe, Africa, and Asia, the collections are strongest in those regions where the Museum does research on the origins of domestication. The Near East is so well represented that students from all over the country come to use that collection. Highland Mexico, the Andes of Peru, and the Midwest U.S. are also well represented. Anything we do not have is almost certainly available in the Museum of Zoology.