Human Flower Project

Pollen Detective

Pollen is the “arrowhead” of plant archeology. From traces of meadowsweet pollen, a scientist is reconstructing the ancient funeral rites of Wales.


Pollen of meadowsweet (Filpendula ulmaria)

Image: Uppsala University

Could something as seemingly delicate as flower pollen withstand the pummeling of four thousand years?

Yes, says archaeologist Astrid Caseldine. Not only that, the location and condition of pollen casings offer clues to the cultures, even the emotions, of prehistoric people.

Caseldine was part of the research team that excavated a 4000-year-old Welsh burial mound. The scholars concluded that as today mourners send floral wreaths and arrangements to funerals, meadowsweet flowers were given as tributes in these ancient obsequies.

We were baffled and intrigued by the study and asked Astrid Caseldine, of University of Wales Lampeter, for further detail, which she has generously provided. She clarified that meadowsweet has two botanical names: “Spiraea ulmaria equals Filpendula ulmaria” though the latter is more commonly used in the U.K.

Astrid writes, “Pollen or at least the outer coat of pollen grains is extremely durable (the internal contents do not survive so the pollen is not viable) but you do have to have suitable conditions for it to survive. The ideal conditions are waterlogged soils and acid soils (preferably both) or very dry conditions, i.e. conditions which prevent fungal and other microbial activity.” In peat bogs, pollen grains can last thousands of years; “This is the reason we can reconstruct vegetation changes since the last glaciation, and can therefore contribute to the debate about climate change,” she explains.

Caseldine said that at Fan Foel (the Welsh excavation), “Conditions were sufficiently acid for the pollen to survive.”

But what about those meadowsweet flowers? How did the archaeologists conclude that the flowers had been brought as a tribute rather than just having grown wild at the site? There are quite a number of reasons, it turns out.

First, Caseldine explains that she found high concentrations of meadowsweet pollen (15%) in the actual cremation deposit; meadowsweet count was much lower (2%) at one spot nearby and otherwise practically non-existent.

imageExcavating the cist

at Fan Foel

Photo: Cambria Archaeology

Caseldine said there was no evidence that the pollen had been burned; it appears that the body was cremated, the fresh flowers then placed with the remains. Further, she writes, “The site is an exposed summit at 781 metres above sea-level (above the height at which meadowsweet is found at today in Britain - so far as I know).” In other words, there’s strong evidence that this was a human flower project; somebody, not the wind, toted the meadowsweet here.

She adds, “The presence of immature as well as mature pollen perhaps provides further evidence for the presence of flowers.” It appears that on the day of the funeral 4000 years ago, someone brought a bouquet of meadowsweet that included flowers both in bud and in full bloom, just as a bunch of tribute flowers would be today.

We’re enormously grateful to Astrid Caseldine for this inside view of palaeoecology and her explanation of one more way that flowers fill out the history of humankind.

For yet more on meadowsweet pollen as a key to palaeoecology, check out this site. And here are some images of meadowsweet and other pollens from Uppsala University. This is a fascinating site that, in small part, describes how pollen has been used to understand the history of the Florida Everglades (talk about “waterlogged soils!”).

May we venture into palaeosociology? We spotted this detailed botanical description of Filpendula ulmaria, not entirely complimentary: “The flowers are 5-6mm in diameter, dense and cream in colour, usually have five petals and have a very sickly-sweet scent.

Consider the preponderance of lilies at funerals today. Astrid, we’d add this heavy fragrance to your argument—that meadowsweet was indeed a funeral tribute flower in prehistoric Britain. Grief seems to want a domineering sweetness.

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