Ethnobotanical Laboratory

ethnobotanical collections

UMMA 14379: sunflowers from Austin, Texas; UMMA 13217: leaves and stems of Helianthus occidentalis

When Dr. Melvin R. Gilmore was hired in 1929, he was instructed to develop a laboratory for the identification of archaeological plant remains from North America. To create the laboratory, Gilmore assembled a comparative collection of taxonomically authenticated wood, seeds, and domesticated plant parts and files about their uses by American Indians. His task was enabled with the addition, in 1931, of Dr. Volney H. Jones, first as an assistant and later his successor in the laboratory. Together, they built the largest ethnobotanical collection in North America. The collections in the laboratory continue to grow in North America and elsewhere in the world where the Museum conducts archaeological research as generations of graduate students submit plant material collected during their investigations.

One of the earliest research projects conducted at the Ethnobotanical Laboratory began in 1954 and continued until 2004. The project, an initiative started by Volney Jones, was to create a "Compendium of Data on Economic Botany of the Southwest." Through funding by the University's Graduate School, Vorsila Boher and Jones created a taxonomic list of economic plants from the Southwest that could then be cross-indexed by native tribe and category of use. For over 30 years and through various funding sources, data were collected by using a punch card system. In 2004, Richard I. Ford, the Director of the Ethnobotany Laboratory, began the long and arduous task of digitizing the information. The result of over 4 years of work has culminated with the creation of the "Southwest Traditional Ethnic Group Plant Use Database." For more information on the history of the creation of the database and its importance in ethnobotanical research, please read the History of the Database report. Please read  "How to search the Database" for helping make specific inquiries.

The Laboratory remains unique because of its extensive collection of archaeological and systematic comparative plant parts from around the world and the ethnographic examples of how these plants are collected, stored, processed, and utilized by traditional cultures. The research results from use of the collections are numerous and varied. Many research papers have been published and the Ethnobotanical Laboratory Report series lists 596 papers that use the collection to confirm archaeological plant identifications and their interpretation. 

Rehousing the Archaeobiology 1 Collection

In 2009 the National Science Foundation awarded the Museum a $482,000 grant to rehouse the approximately 35,000 objects that comprise the Archaeobiology 1 collection. A new assistant collections manager, Jamie Merkel, was hired to implement and oversee the project.

During this project—November 2009 through November 2012—each object in the collection in the main laboratory was rehoused in state-of-the-art boxes and vials, and placed in new powder-coated enameled steel cabinets. The new boxes have plastic lids that allow the objects inside to be seen without having to open the box, minimizing the handling of objects.   

The first objects to be rehoused were the collections of corn. The Museum has a large collection of North American corn from the early to mid-20th century, and a large collection of corn from Jemez Cave, New Mexico. These collections offer research potential to those conducting genetic and DNA analyses as well as other kinds of studies.

Rehousing the Fiber Collection

UMMA 24448: Southwest United States Sandal

The second phase of the project—rehousing our fiber collection—was completed in September, 2010. We have fibers from archaeological sites such as Jemez Cave, New Mexico, and Newt Kash Hollow, Kentucky. Ethnographic fibers were collected while Gilmore and Jones et al. were in the field. Items in our fiber collections include twine, sandals, textiles, and basketry.

Rehousing the Wood Collections
ebot wood

Wood collection rehoused in new acid free boxes and archivally sound cabinets

Archaeobiology 1 has a large comparative wood collection, created to aid researchers in the identification of wood samples collected during ethnographic field studies and archaeological excavations. The collection is largely comprised of cross sections and segments of branches from angiosperms, gymnosperms, and woodlike monocots, as well as charred samples of each. The majority of the wood in the collection is from species found in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. A smaller percentage of the collection is composed of archaeological remains and ethnographic objects composed of wood or charred remains. The collection was fully rehoused by 2011 and is now available for researchers.