Dr. Chantel White: Uncovering History Through Plants

Dr. Chantel White, archaeobotanist at the Penn Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology.

Dr. Chantel White is a time traveler. Her Wayback Machine is currently set to 42,000 years in the past where a group of the first anatomically modern humans settled in a cave in what is now Jordan.

Unlike many other archeologists, Dr. White doesn’t uncover the past through bones or carvings or structures. She finds history in plant material such as seeds and wood.

“In archaeology, there has been a lot of research about large scale agriculture — the beginning of farming, plant domestication, the development of staple crops that fed thousands,” said Dr. White, archaeobotanist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology. “There isn’t nearly as much research into how plants were part of people’s daily lives, orchards and vegetable gardens for example, and very little research into ornamental gardens. I wanted to explore everyday interactions with plants and gain a better understanding of the human experience.”

On Wednesday, March 27, Dr. White will present “Plants with a Past: Botanical Archeology,” for the Ambler Arboretum of Temple University’s 2nd Annual Celebration of Women in Horticulture. Registration will begin at 6:30 p.m. with the lecture beginning at 7 p.m. in the Ambler Campus Learning Center Auditorium. 

Tickets are $5 for Ambler Arboretum Associate, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society and Women in Horticulture Members (Learn how to become an Arboretum Associate) or $10 for non-members. Students may attend for free (registration is required). Discount Codes available for students and Ambler Arboretum Members. Contact kathleen.salisbury@temple.edu for more information. 

White said it is often difficult to pin down when humans began creating gardens as the definition of “garden” is malleable. A patch of land used by a small group of people planting vegetables in the early Neolithic period, could, for example, be considered a garden.

“With ornamental gardening, there are some key possibilities, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, for example,” she said. “Another ancient example could be the gardens at Herod’s palace in what is now Israel. Botanical material collected at the palace shows that it clearly contained a pleasure garden.”

Archaeobotany, White said, is a subdiscipline of archaeology focusing on ancient people and communities and their interactions with the plant world — food, farming, clothing, medicines — “the many ways that people worked with and used plants.”

“There are in fact seeds that can germinate thousands of years later — the Methuselah date palm is a perfect example — but most of the seeds that we study survive in some form because they were burned. We are able to use them to identify species rather than attempt to cultivate them again in the present,” she said. “We study wood, which is typically very sturdy and preserves well, cell structures, pollen, starches, and phytoliths, which are preserved plant cells. Setting up a new archaeological site is always one of the most exciting times for me — you don’t inherently know what these studies of ancient plants will reveal or what you will discover.”

White’s interest in plants is seemingly genetic.

“I come from generations of gardeners. There’s never been a time that I wasn’t around the flower gardens of my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother,” she said. “Growing up, I knew I wanted to be an archaeologist and I was particularly interested in the first farmers during the Neolithic period, how they changed and manipulated plants over thousands of years to become staple food sources that we continue to rely on today.”

White said she was never particular drawn to the histories of pharaoh and kings, pyramids and palaces. She wanted to know about everyday people and how they lived their lives. Plants and how they were used are a perfect window into that world, she said.

“Food gardens were inherently connected to daily activities and daily life. It gives us insight into who we were as a people, how people spent their time and what common tasks were necessary to live their lives,” she said. “The study of ancient plants can also provide key information about how we interact with plants today. We can explore how plants dealt with climate change in the past, how it changed people’s food habits, and how that might affect our interactions with crops in the future.”

During her March 27 talk, Dr. White will describe how gardens are preserved and identified. She will also discuss her ongoing archaeobotanical work in the nineteenth-century gardens of American poet Emily Dickinson, located in Amherst, MA, and Philadelphia’s own botanical legacy, the Bartram family’s gardens.

“There is a continuing archaeological excavation taking place at Emily Dickinson’s home being conducted by the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. They’ve been excavating the homestead lawn where her gardens, pathway and barn were located,” said White. “In addition to being a renowned poet, Dickinson was also a very skilled gardener — she had a very specific way of cultivating garden beds and it is said she could make anything grow. Exploring her gardens gives us a greater understanding of how she and her family lived their lives and how her gardens influenced her poetry.”

White said the plant history of the Bartrams’ 1700-and1800s-era home was preserved thanks to a fortuitous use of vacuum bags.

“For a family who had such a successful seed business, there was little record of plant material found at the site. At one point the floorboards were pulled up in the house while architects were studying the attic,” White said. “They discovered that rodents had stored a treasure-trove of seeds under the floorboards. The architects actually vacuumed up the seeds and kept the bags, giving us all of this well-preserved plant material to look through. We’re able to identify what the Bartrams were growing for their business and their personal gardens during the 1810s and 20s.”

White said she will also talk about her research in Istanbul, Turkey, studying modern gardens that trace their agricultural history back 1,500 years.

“There is tremendous pressure on these gardens, they are definitely in peril. We are trying to preserve them and their incredible history,” she said. “There is a lot of documentation on the plants that have been cultivated here, the fruits and vegetables that sustained the city. As a city under siege, these ancient market gardens saved the populace.”

Dr. White continues to be engaged in archaeological research and teaching at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM), where she has been the Teaching Specialist for Archaeobotany since 2015. Prior to arriving in Philadelphia, White was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Notre Dame after receiving her Ph.D. from Boston University in archaeology in 2013. In addition to teaching courses on ethnobotany and archaeobotany at Penn, her research interests include environmental archaeology, agricultural origins and intensification, and experimental archaeology. She has carried out field research in many regions around the world and maintains current archaeobotanical projects in Greece, Israel, Jordan, and the United States.

“This summer, I’ll be returning to Greece to two different sites that were ancient ports — what was it like for the dock workers and residents who lived in these port towns?” she said. “After that, I’ll be returning to Israel, where I’m studying an early Bronze Age village near the Sea of Galilee, before returning to the cave in Jordan.”

Concerning the study of gardens, “My colleagues and I were once told by a government official that the soil doesn’t contain history,” White said.

“Yes, it certainly does!” she said. “It has a rich botanical history that tells us so much about who we were in the past and who we are today.”

The Ambler Arboretum’s annual Celebration of Women in Horticulture recognizes women who epitomize the founding principles of the Pennsylvania School of Horticulture for Women (PSHW). The women recognized and presenting each year embody the “educated and earnest-minded women” with “trained hands and trained minds” that were the product of the PSHW. The presenters represent women who continue to do work in the field while advancing the profession and science of horticulture. This program is being presented in partnership with Women in Horticulture of the Delaware Valley.

For additional information, contact 267-468-8108 or duffyj@temple.edu.