What can a pressed flower tell us about ancient DNA?

‘Crowned with rank fumiter and furrow-weeds,
With burdocks, hemlock, nettles, cuckoo-flowers,
Darnel, and all the idle weeds that grow
In our sustaining corn.’
(King Lear, Act 4, Scene 4)

Artists have used the motif of the weed and wild flower to explore the tensions between wild and the domestic domains, both metaphorically and literally. King Lear wears a crown of weeds and wildflowers. The ‘Flooers of the Forest’ are – in many respects – the eponymous riff of Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song (1932). Bob Dylan’s Bluebelles blaze in his weird, refracted Highlands (1997), just before Robert Burns sings with the Boston town Blues.

The best have found a way of combining the poetry of the local, unloved and familiar with the global and transcendent. A similar tension is central to many key accounts of the changes that took place from early pre-history onwards, as people increasingly domesticated and altered their landscapes.

In recent days, Kenny Brophy has drawn attention to a plant impression on the inside of the neck of a Bronze Age Beaker pot from a burial excavated within the ceremonial landscape of Forteviot in Perth & Kinross, which he is writing-up for the SERF project. The identification remains uncertain but tantalising (see the Twitter thread here). It does appear to have been a wild plant and it does appear to have been an intentional act.

A rim sherd from a Beaker pot found at Forteviot, Perth & Kinross, showing the impression of a plant inside the neck of the vessel.

By coincidence, I was recently working with another Beaker pot from the British Museum store, from the burial of a woman under a barrow at Goodmanham in East Yorkshire. Placed centrally on the belly of the pot is an impression of a Naked Barley grain. It is also very likely to have been the result of an intentional act, as experimental archaeologist and pre-historical potter,  Graham Taylor, has made clear.

The impression of a Naked Barley grain on the surface of a Beaker vessel from Goodmanham 99, East Yorkshire (BM registration 1879, 1209.1199).

There are many well-established connections between Beaker pots and associated funerary rites along the East coast of Northern Britain. This extends from the motifs and form of the pots themselves to the (gender-specific) body posture and orientations of the bodies in the grave. That relationship is well-established and stable isotope analysis for mobility is beginning to add flesh to the bones.

In this light, two plant impressions seem barely worthy of a footnote or even a tweet, especially when contrasted with the contents – and media coverage – of a recent paper in Nature that presented the results of a study of ancient DNA from bodies accompanied by Beakers. The results seem unequivocal, in so far as ancient DNA can be taken as a measure of ancestry.

Screenshot of how The Guarian reported the ancient DNA paper in Nature.

It is a juggernaut of a paper, almost overwhelming in its impact. If handled incorrectly, it threatens to scramble our sight of the people we are studying. But from the small impressions of plants and crops we can glimpse an alternative view: of the experiences of being-in-place, growing familiar with the wild flowers of Perthshire, muscles and sinew aching in fields of rolling barley on the Yorkshire wolds.

Anyone living 4,000 years ago would have likely lived closer to the land, knowing it more intimately after a month than we will in a whole lifetime. No Beaker person can be reduced to a typological ‘network’ or the results of a DNA profile, nor would any of the scientists involved in the Nature paper ever seek to suggest that. A fuller – and thoroughly exciting – picture is to be found in the tension between the recent DNA results and a closer reading of interactions with place and personhood through material culture.

In the character of his conflicted heroine, Christine Guthrie, the Scottish novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon captured that balance:

“… two Chrisses there were that fought for her heart and tormented her. You hated the land and the coarse speak of the folk and learning was brave and fine one day; and the next you’d waken with the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart of you and the smell of the earth in your face, almost you’d cry for that, the beauty of it and the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies.”

The same could be said for the challenge facing pre-historians discussing the Beaker ‘invasion’ theory today: make to weave or fail to find the productive tension that leads to a deeper understanding.

Acknowledgements: I’m grateful to Kenny Brophy, Benjamin Gearey, Ruth Pelling, and Graham Taylor for Twitter-based discussion of the two pottery impressions.

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