A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
How one woman's knack for extracting history from plant remains led to some startling conclusions about ancient people and the environments that sustained them.
In an office lab in west Philadelphia, Naomi Miller sits transfixed, peering through the twin barrels of a microscope. Around her is a sort of sarcophagus for long-dead plants and seeds, in phials and film canisters or mounted for reference. There are no exotic trophies or travel posters--just a death row of potted plants on the windowsill that look ready to join the specimens in steel cabinets. She pushes burnt seeds and splinters in and out of the field of view with a slender paintbrush, identifying and counting by species. She once told an acquaintance, half in jest, that the only reason she got into this line of work was that it was so boring no one else would touch it.
Out from behind the microscope, though, Miller's field of view is as panoramic as the vivid Near Eastern landscapes she has painted over the course of her career. For her research has given us, among other things, a clearer picture of the domestication of animals and plants over long reaches of time, and their effects on history and culture.
A lanky 53-year-old with a guileless look that shouldn't be mistaken for naivete, Miller is a senior research scientist at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum Applied Science Center for Archaeology. Her specialty is paleoethnobotany, aka archaeobotany, a discipline concerned with the surviving traces of plant materials used by humans in ancient times--seeds, charcoal, fiber, wood, pollen, and plant-generated silica. For some thirty years she has studied what humans and livestock ate and drank, what plant materials were used for clothes, tools, or construction, and how agriculture reshaped human culture.
Colleagues note her leadership in helping archaeology recalibrate its reckoning of human influence on ancient landscapes. Richard Zettler, curator of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, recently noted that Miller's "highly informative" work forced archaeologists to reexamine their interpretations of plant material. Ohio State University archaeobotanist Joy McCorriston says Miller has been "connecting the dots, and making important contributions where she pulls it all together."
Some of the implications of the charred debris she has teased out of Near Eastern dirt extend the story even further--into our own future.
Steve Nash writes about science and the environment, and teaches in the journalism and environmental studies programs at the University of Richmond. He is the author of Blue Ridge 2020, a recent book on the future of the Blue Ridge ecosystem, published by the University of North Carolina Press.