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June 27, 2007

Archeology Influences Plant Community Ecology

Abandoned fourth century AD settlement. Photo by L. Laut. (larger version)

To help fill in around here, this post not only has a cool photograph and we'll need to keep those coming during Lindsay's absence, but in light of the Cheney administration's global warming denialist offensive, I think it makes a very important point about long-term human effects on the environment--Mike the Mad Biologist

In the June 2007 issue of Ecology, Dambrine et al. have a fascinating article demonstrating that abandoned Roman settlements still affect the local abundance of plant communities. From the abstract (italics mine):

Combined archaeological and ecological investigations in a large ancient oak forest in Central France have revealed a dense network of ancient human settlements dating from the Roman period. We demonstrate a strong correlation between present-day forest plant diversity patterns and the location of Roman farm buildings. Plant species richness strongly increases toward the center of the settlements, and the frequency of neutrophilous and nitrogen-demanding species is higher. This pattern is paralleled by an increase in soil pH, available P, and 15N, indicating the long-term impact of former agricultural practices on forest biogeochemical cycles. These extensive observations in a forested region on acid soils complement and confirm previous results from a single Roman settlement on limestone. Ancient Roman agricultural systems are increasingly being identified in contemporary French forests; the broad extent and long-lasting effects of previous cultivation shown in this study require that land-use history be considered as a primary control over biodiversity variations in many forest landscapes, even after millennia of abandonment.

One interesting thing is that calcium carbonate leaching from the building's mortar alters the soil pH, and consequently affects nutrient availability. This increases the number of species found close to these settlements.

That's right: mortar that is at least 1700 years old is still determining plant community composition.

Pretty cool.

Crossposted at Mike the Mad Biologist


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This is cool beans to me, as a case of synchronicity.

We have a tendency to alkaline soils. The drainage from the house is leaching from the mortar of the decorative brickwork in front of the wall.

So our soil is less conducive to plants because of it (I had to add sulphur to the soil to bring the Ph. down to 7. I'll be adding more to try and get it toward 6-6.5.

I’m a day late and a dollar short as usual. - I was surprised that an article about altered plant communities on an archaeological site would be considered news. Given that “anthrosols” are part of commonly accepted soil taxonomy and the interest plaggen soils, midden soils, and the Amazonian terra preta soils have generated, one would think that there would be a huge literature on anthrosol floras. For archaeological surveying purposes if for nothing else. I gave the subject some cursory perusal with the usual search engines: Google scholar, ISI web of science, SCOPUS, etc., and didn’t come up with much. Amazing that there is so little information, considering that vast, and exponentially growing tracts of the earth’s surface are, and will consist of man-modified soils.

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