anthraco2015: A Few Thoughts

This past summer the 6th International Anthracology Meeting (anthraco2015) was held in Freiburg, Germany.  The meeting was jointly organized by the Department of Geobotany, Faculty of Biology, University of Freiburg, and the Tree-ring Lab of Baden-Wuerttemburg State Office for Cultural Heritage. This meeting is held every four years (or so) and I was excited that the location and timing allowed me to attend. I was also excited because I spent the whole summer training up on various aspects of wood anatomy (see here) and archaeological charcoal (see here) and I wanted to know the latest developments in the field. For those of you not familiar with anthracology, it is the study of wood charcoal. This post will give a brief summary of the meeting, some personal highlights, and hopes for the next meeting. 

One of the great things about this meeting was that there were no parallel sessions. This means that everyone had the opportunity to listen to all the talks without having to pick between papers given at the same time. Sometimes at large conferences, parallel session are necessary; however, I find that I tend to prioritize papers that focus on my research interests and I miss out on other fascinating research. Fortunately, this was not the case at anthraco2015. Papers were given surrounding the following session topics: 1) New methods and challenges, 2) Geo- and Pedoanthracology, 3) Archaeo- and Ethnoarchaeology, 4) Charcoal production and Archaeometallurgy, 5) Dendroanthracology, 6) Multiproxy studies. Talks were given by researchers from many fields including archaeology, botany, soil science, and geography.

Many of the proceedings of the meeting will be published in a special volume in the journal “Quaternary International” so I won’t go into great detail about the specific results and interpretations of individual papers. The entire conference offered a diversity of topics, regions, and time periods, I was particularly pleased to see the following areas represented:

  1. Southern Arabia: My colleague, Vladimir Dabrowski gave a joint paper on imported wood from the archaeological site of Mleiha in the Oman peninsula. While Vladimir works on material 3000 years later than mine, it was interesting to see how wood practices changed in the region we study over the course of many millennia. While Vladimir gave the only talk on Southern Arabia, there were more talks on data from the Near East, which was nice to see.
  2. Africa: There were a few talks on data from African countries such as  Cameroon, Togo, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. My colleagues Alexa Hoehn and Barbara Eichhorn at the Goethe University discussed issues with ecological interpretations, specifically identification, of charcoal from Central African rainforests. Their material comes from Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is a good distance from the Tigray region of Ethiopia, but their analytical framework could be applied to other tropical and sub-tropical areas. Overall, it was good to see scholarship on African charcoal represented.
  3. Australia: Until this meeting, I only had met one Australian anthracologist. This was when I actually went to Australia for a multi-disciplinary conference on the Indian Ocean World a couple of years ago. anthraco2015 featured the work of a number of Australian anthracologists. I was especially pleased to hear about the anthracological work being done at Australian sites because this part of the world remained elusive to me prior to the meeting.
  4. Tropical Charcoal: Tropical woods are a fascinating and rich area of research; however, they are often understudied because these datasets pose a lot of issues. One of the main issues is identification. Tropical rainforests are filled with a diversity of woody plant species. This makes identification tricky because there are so many options. Tropical wood charcoal issues were discussed from many areas of the world, including Brazil, Cameroon, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Belize. Some of my favorite topics surrounding tropical charcoal are quite specific, so they will be commented on in further detail when the publications come out.
  5. Multiproxy studies: I will be completely honest, I’m a total sucker for multiproxy studies. If you have the word ‘multiproxy’ in your title, I will attend your talk, download your paper, read your poster, etc. You might be wondering ‘What IS a multiproxy study?’ Simply put, multiproxy studies approach research using multiple lines of data to address certain research questions. These studies are often framed in two ways. First, you can combine the same type of proxy (e.g. wood charcoal) that are derived from different sources (e.g. charcoal from natural areas, archaeological sites, experimental datasets, etc.). Second, you can combine different types of proxies (e.g. wood charcoal, pollen analysis, charred seeds). While multiproxy approaches frequently occur in archaeology because our data is often fragmented, I really appreciate studies that have a multiproxy design from the outset. The last day of the conference was entirely devoted to multiproxy papers and it was compelling to see how other disciplines conducted these studies.
  6. Organization of Data: Organizing anthracological data can be quite tricky. There are a lot of wood anatomical characteristics and a multitude of ways to represent  findings. It’s a topic that I continue to mull over. I was pleased to see discussions and potential solutions to some of these organizational issues including Rita Scheel-Ybert’s ANTHRAKOS database and Noémie Nocus and Antoine Nourissier’s ACACIA, which automatically creates anthracological diagrams in Excel. All authors hope to make these tools available to anthracological community in the near future.

In addition to the talks, the conference organizers provided multiple excursion opportunities to the southern areas of the Black Forest. I participated in the mid-week excursion in which we ascended to the highest point in Freiburg, toured historical charcoal burning kilns, and visited a historic Black Forest farmhouse. The tours were engaging and aided in understanding resource management and creation in this part of the world. The who participated in the pre- and/or post-congress excursions were able to visit experimental charcoal kilns and hike further into the Black Forest. (Sorry for the lack of photos on this front. I lost my phone during the meeting and the photos were lost along with it.)

Overall, the meeting was a worthwhile experience. The talks provided information and frameworks that I could incorporate into my own research. The meeting fostered numerous networking opportunities too. I reconnected with many French colleagues that haven’t since the fall of 2014 and I met many established and emerging researchers from all over the world. The frequent coffee breaks allowed time for discussion in a more informal atmosphere. The details of the next meeting are still being decided and the one thing that I hope to see at the next time is more North American based researchers. We were definitely in the minority (which could be due to timing and location) and it would be great to see more of us in the future. Finally, special thanks goes out to Thomas Ludemann and Oliver Nelle who were part of both the scientific and organizing committees. Their coordinated efforts made for an organized and enriching meeting. If you would like more information on the topics covered and events of the meeting, check out the anthraco 2015 website here.

*The anthraco2015 logo was designed by Thomas Ludemann and I have received his permission to use it on this website.

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Smiti Nathan

I’m an archaeologist that travels around the world for both work and pleasure. I have a penchant for exploring ancient and modern places and the people, plants, and foods entangled in them. I write about archaeology, travel, and productivity.



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