Irrigation and phytolith formation:an experimental study

This source preferred by Emma Jenkins

Authors: Jenkins, E.L., Jamjoum, K. and Nuimat, S.

Editors: Mithen, S.J. and Black, E.

Pages: 347-372

Publisher: Cambridge University Press/UNESCO

Place of Publication: Cambridge/New York

ISBN: 9780521769570

It has been proposed that phytoliths from archaeological sites can be indicators of water availability and hence inform about past agricultural practices (Rosen and Weiner, 1994; Madella et al., 2009). Rosen and Weiner (1994) found that the number of conjoined phytoliths fromcereal husks increased with irrigationwhile Madella et al. (2009) demonstrated that the ratio of long-celled phytoliths to short-celled phytoliths increased with irrigation. In order to further explore these hypotheses, wheat and barley were experimentally grown from 2005 to 2008 in three different crop growing stations in Jordan.

Four different irrigation regimes were initially employed: 0% (rainfall only), 80%, 100%and 120% of the optimum crop water requirements, with a 40% plot being added in the second and third growing seasons. Each plot measured 5 m � 5 m and a drip irrigation system was used. Environmental variables were measured on a daily basis, and soil and water samples were taken and analysed at the University of Reading. Phytoliths from the husks of these experimentally grown plants were extracted using the dry ashing method. Results demonstrate that although the number of conjoined cells increases with irrigation, there were considerable intersite and inter-year differences suggesting that environmental variables other than water availability affect phytolith uptake and deposition. Furthermore, analytical experiments demonstrated that conjoined phytoliths are subject to change or breakage by external factors, making this methodology problematic to apply to archaeological phytolith assemblages that have an unknown taphonomic history. The ratio of long cells to short cells also responded to increased irrigation, and these forms are not subject to break up as are conjoined forms. Our results from the modern samples of durum wheat and six-row barley show that if an assemblage of single-celled phytoliths consists of over 60% dendritic long cells then this strongly suggests that the crop received optimum levels of water. Further research is needed to determine if this finding is consistent in phytolith samples from the leaves and stems, as suggested byMadella et al. (2009), and in other species of cereals. If this is the case then phytoliths are a valuble tool for assessing the level of past water availability and, potentially, past irrigation.

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