AIA News

May 14, 2024

Cultivating a Broader Field of Archaeobotany

by Alexia Smith

Flotation samples drying in the Tell Leilan dig house courtyard. Heavy fractions are shown drying on the ground, with the makeshift archaeobotany lab in the background. Photo courtesy of Alexia Smith.
Tell Leilan mound in the distance beyond a dirt road and dry fields.
Excavation of Akkadian Palace at Tell Leilan in 2006. Flotation samples and baskets of pottery are shown in the foreground.

An Examination of Akkadian and Post-Akkadian Food, Fuel, Farming, and Adaptation at Tell Leilan, Syria

Alexia Smith (University of Connecticut) received an AIA-NEH Grant for Post-Fieldwork Research and Publication in 2021. Read on to find out how this AIA-NEH grant supported the analysis of ancient plant remains at the Akkadian palace at Tell Leilan in Syria yielding insight into how a large population was fed and how diets changed after the empire collapsed.

In 2006, a team led by Harvey Weiss (Yale University) exposed a large Akkadian palace (ca. 2600 B.C.) at Tell Leilan, Syria. The palace spanning greater than 1000 square metersincluded a grain store, food preparation rooms, numerous tannur ovens, a trash dump, and a remarkable administrative room associated with rationing. Scholars argue that administrators at Tell Leilan helped control specialized agricultural production across northern Mesopotamia to sustain the Akkadian empire, but little is known about the agricultural base from plant remains themselves.

Over 100 archaeobotanical samples provided detailed insights into the range of activities at the palace. A 3 × 3 meter mudbrick grain store contained a mix of two-row barley, both emmer and free threshing wheats, and Aegilops grains. Chaff and weed seeds indicate that the crop had been threshed and winnowed, but not fully cleaned. Weeds included Galium/Asperula, Vaccaria pyramidata, Coronilla, Trigonella astroites, Bolboschoenum maritimus, Malva sp., and Teucrium/Ajuga, all of which are common across northern Mesopotamia. A small kitchen used to prepare grains contained a small cache of pure Aegilops grains. It is unclear whether this cache was intended for human use or had been hand picked out of the grain prior to preparation. A redistribution room containing a large storage vessel and clay blanks did not yield charred plant remains, likely owing to issues of preservation. The tannurs contained varied plant taxa, spent fuel, and food remains. Amorphous chunks within the tannurs were positively identified as flat bread using scanning electron microscopy (by comparison with specially prepared modern bread reference specimens).

Textual evidence documents the rationing of bread across Mesopotamia. Given the dense concentration of tannurs, this likely occurred at Leilan. One tannur contained 100s of poppy seeds which may have been added to the bread, indicating a local cuisine. Plant taxa within the tannurs were dominated by two-row barley with smaller concentrations of Aegilops and free-threshing wheats. Rachis fragments allowed for the positive identification of both bread and durum wheat (Triticum aestivum and T. durum respectively). Small amounts of lentil and pea were also recovered alongside common weeds. Analyses of the <1mm fraction (dust) within the flotation samples revealed elevated dung spherulite concentrations within the tannurs, confirming the use of dung fuel. Sizeable dung fragments often contained two-row barley, wild barley, and assorted chaff fragments demonstrating that animals were foddered at the site. The remains from the tannurs shared many similarities with samples from the dump area, located just outside of the palace, indicating that cleanings from the ovens were repeatedly dumped there.

Around 2200 B.C.E., the Akkadian empire collapsed, and Tell Leilan was largely abandoned. Archaeobotanical remains from 12 samples recovered from the small post-Akkadian occupation indicate a very different set of plant remains. Post-Akkadian samples contained much higher proportions of cereal chaff, wild grasses, and weed taxa; higher proportions of dung; and slightly fewer crop legumes. The presence of fragmented awn remains in post-Akkadian samples suggests that foddering practices may have differed relative to the Akkadian period hinting at local adaptations to climate change.

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