The Analysis of Archaeological Insect Assemblages: A New Approach


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H. K. Kenward
Is Part Of
The Archaeology of York [Series]
Principles and Methods [Volume]
Council for British Archaeology for York Archaeological Trust
Date Copyrighted
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Digitally available on 27 October 2023
Work carried out in the Environmental Archaeology Unit, University of York, has demonstrated the potential archaeological importance of insect assemblages but has emphasized the inadequacy of previous techniques of interpretation. A wide range of archaeological, biological and climatic data can be had from studies of the remains of insects, mostly Coleoptera and Hemiptera, from archaeological sites but the primary aim is usually to make ecological reconstructions in order to learn more about past conditions and activities on the site. There are, however, considerable difficulties involved in obtaining accurate and detailed information of this kind, particularly in the urban sites with which this paper is primarily concerned.

In the first part of the paper the value and problems of an 'ecological mosaic' approach to reconstructing past conditions, using individual species or groups of species, are considered. Eurytopic and stenotopic species both present problems. It is difficult to obtain reliable ecological data concerning most insects and synecological data are almost non-existent. Other serious problems stem from the presence of a transported 'background' component in most assemblages, the ecological heterogeneity of death assemblages and the inherently different abundance of insects exploiting various habitats.

In the second part some new methods of inspecting death assemblages are discussed, designed to overcome these problems at least in part by considering the properties of the assemblage as a whole. These include improved presentation of data, comparison with modern death assemblages and determination of a number of statistics of the assemblage from each sample. The proportion of species unable to breed in buildings and the species richness of assemblages are believed to have particular value. The importance of comparing the properties of each assemblage with those of a wide range of ancient and modern ones and of adequate sampling methods is stressed. Summary tables of the main statistics of a large number of assemblages are given, together with representative rank order curves.

These methods of analysis are illustrated by examples, using assemblages from samples taken from a variety of archaeological situations in York and in Durham. It is concluded that by their use a great deal of valuable data can be obtained from insect assemblages but that there is ample scope for improvement.

In the final section of the paper the possibilities of statistical analysis of similarity between species composition and other properties of samples and of detecting indicator groups of ecologically related species within assemblages are outlined. The value of detailed quantitative studies is considered in relation to the information obtainable by more superficial qualitative methods. Both are believed to be useful but there is danger in stretching the evidence from qualitative studies too far.
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York Archaeological Trust
CC BY 4.0
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