Wood Anatomy and Archaeological Charcoal Identification Workshop at Boston University

In August 2015, I flew back to Boston to participate in a week-long wood anatomy and archaeological charcoal identification workshop at Boston University. The course was generously put on by Dr. John (Mac) Marston and Boston University’s Environmental Archaeology Lab (EAL). This post will tell you how I found out about the archaeological charcoal workshop (and how you can too in the future), what we did during the course, and why this course was important to this archaeologist. 

About the Workshop

Back in March 2015 I got an e-mail forward from my advisor about learning wood  anatomy. The e-mail provided information about a comprehensive, funded course at the Arnold Arboretum (I did apply and get in. You can check out my experience here.) and a free, week-long workshop at Boston University. The workshop accepted participants on a first-come-first-serve basis, so I sent an e-mail that day. Fortunately, they had space and I was in!

The workshop was organized and run by Dr. John (Mac) Marston of Boston University’s Department of Archaeology. Mac runs the Environmental Archaeology Lab, where the workshop took place. The workshop was offered free of charge to those who wanted to participate. We had to take care of our own travel, lodging (though we were set up with graduate students if we wanted cost-effective housing…thank you Juan Vidal and Mary Van Dempsey for hosting me!), and food (though Mac treated us to great food at various points throughout the week). In my opinion, offering this course free-of-charge and further helping to reduce costs by locating housing and providing great food at certain points was extremely generous.

If you would like to be notified about a possible summer 2016 course or other archaeobotanical opportunities, I would suggest signing up for the Northeastern Environmental Archaeology Network (NEEAN) listserv. You can find out more information about NEEAN and how to get on the listserv here. They don’t send a lot of e-mails, but when they do it is about their annual or semi-annual meetings, workshops, and other opportunities. Even if you’re not located in the Northeastern United States, I think this is a good listserv to be on if you’re an archaeobotanist or environmental archaeologist.

What We Did

The workshop packed many valuable experiences in one week. Here are some of the things we did:

Wood Anatomy Crash Course

Mac gave as series of lectures on some of the fundamentals of wood anatomy and archaeological wood charcoal. He summarized the material in a way that was accessible for beginners, but also useful for those with somewhat of a background in wood anatomy. For me, I had a ton of wood anatomy features running through my head after the microMORPH short course and it was very helpful to hear what characteristics I should prioritize when looking at archaeological charcoal.

Field Trips

We had two excellent field trips as part of the course. The first was to the Arnold Arboretum where we met Michael Dossman, the Curator of Living Collections, and got a great tour of the living wood collection. The second was to the Harvard Herbaria, where Curatorial Assistant Danielle Hanrahan showed us around. We were able to see the extensive specimen collections, ethnobotanical material, and the famous glass flowers.

Touring the Arnold Arboretum.
Inside the Harvard Herbaria.


One of the most exciting parts of the workshop was conducting carbonization experiments on modern wood. We collected wood fragments that were donated by the Arnold Arboretum and we burned them. We did this to create a comparative collection of wood charcoal. Comparative collections are important for many archaeologists. If we have a specimen and we’re not sure what it is, we can compare it with items from a comparative collection that have been exposed to somewhat similar conditions. In the case of charcoal, modern wood is carbonized so that it can be compared to ancient carbonized wood for identification purposes. The Environmental Archaeology Lab (EAL) has a furnace in which to burn wood and we were able to carbonize material for our own comparative collections, while also contributing to the EAL comparative collection. Special thanks to Kathleen Forste for helping us with the experiments and getting us situated in the lab.

Independent Study

One of the great things about this workshop was that you could bring your own material to work on. There was dedicated time for personal microscopy and if you needed help you had Mac and other colleagues to consult with. While my material was a bit of a bust, others really benefited from having dedicated time to work through their own material. I enjoyed working with others on their material, especially on finds from parts of the world that I don’t work in.


The participants in the workshop came from varied geographical, topical, and research backgrounds. One had just finished her undergraduate degree, while others were established and gainfully employed archaeobotanists. The rest of us were graduate students at varying stages in our graduate career. This small workshop allowed participants to really get to know each other and gain a better understanding of the research goals of our fellow colleagues. It was also comforting to hear that others had tricky datasets as well!


The discussions that we had truly added to the value of the course. Before coming to the course, I had a number of questions running through my head about archaeobotany and archaeological charcoal. These included, “How do you start making a comparative collection?”, “What’s too small of a sample size?”, “How can you make sense of hand-picked charcoal?”, “What are some ways I can database my finds?” and so on. These questions were on my mind, both for my dissertation and other projects I am working on. We had many good discussions surrounding these and other topics at the workshop and it was good to know that I wasn’t the only one thinking about these issues.

Why This Workshop Was Important

There are not many short courses on archaeobotanical topics, especially archaeological charcoal. The course Mac offered was great because it delivered valuable content and it was accessible to a variety of skill levels. It was also a lot of fun. I met great people and learned a lot about archaeological charcoal from around the world. Boston is also a great place to visit in the summer (more on that soon!). If you’re looking for a solid introduction to archaeological charcoal, I would join the NEEAN list and be sure to be in touch with Mac about future training opportunities.

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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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