Quick Tips: Archaeological Techniques –Use of Isotopes in Archaeology.

Isotopic analysis is widely used within the worlds of archaeology and anthropology. From analysing isotopes we’re able to uncover a wide range of information regarding the past; ranging from palaeoenvironments to palaeodiets, and even using isotopes to reconstruct trade routes of materials.

But first, what are isotopes?

All of the chemical elements consist of atoms which are specific to the element and the mass of an atom is dictated by the number of protons and neutrons it contains. The identity of the chemical element depends on the number of protons found within the atom’s nucleus, but the number of neutrons within the atom can vary. Atoms of the same chemical element (same number of protons), but with different masses, which is from the varying amount of neutrons, are called isotopes.

Stone Circle at Drombeg

Within nature, most of the elements consist of a number of isotopes. These isotopes can be found within water, livestock, crops and plants, which can then be used to reconstruct palaeodiets and palaeoenvironments.

Within nature, most of the elements consist of a number of isotopes. For a great majority of elements these relative proportions of isotopes are fixed, but there are a group of elements which either due to chemical or biochemical processes are of variable isotopic composition. These elements are oxygen, carbon, nitrogen and sulphur. Another group of isotopes that are used for analysis are strontium, lead and neodymium. These are formed by elements which contain stable but radiogenic isotopes, which are formed by radioactive decay of another element. Carbon and nitrogen isotope composition are primarily used to reconstruct diets, and oxygen isotopes are used to determine geographic origin. Strontium and lead isotopes found within teeth and bone can sometimes be used to reconstruct migration patterns in human populations and cultural affinity

Isotopes Table

A table of the various elemental isotopes that are valuable in archaeological and anthropological research.

But how do isotopes get into skeletal remains?

Carbon isotopes are taken up through the diet of animals during their lifetime and these isotopes are deposited into teeth and bones of humans when they are consumed and digested. By studying animal bones and examining the 12C and 13C isotope ratio, it is possible to determine whether the animals ate predominately 3C or 4C plants. Oxygen isotopes are constantly being taken up and deposited into the body through the water a population drinks. This process ends with the organism’s death, from this point on isotopes no longer accumulate in the body, but do undergo degradation. For best result the researcher would need to know the original levels, or estimation thereof, of isotopes in the organism at the time of its death.

By creating a map of these natural occurring isotopes in different environments, rivers and areas, it is possible to identify where in an area the population lived, sourced their water or where the livestock grazed, by comparing the levels of isotopes that were obtained from skeletal remains to the environmental map. This mapping can also help identify trade routes that once existed and can also identify the migration patterns of populations.


Balme, J., Paterson, A. 2006. Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analayses. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pg 218.

Renfrew, C., Bahn, P. 1991. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. Pg 249-53.

If you’re new to the realm of archaeological, anthropological and forensic sciences (AAFS), or are a student needing sturdy and reliable references, or wondering “what archaeology or anthropology textbooks to buy? Check out our new ‘Useful Literature’ page!

Quick Tips: Use of Phytoliths in Archaeology.

Phytoliths are a very important identification tool in identifying plants within ancient environments, often even classifying down to the species of the plant.

But firstly, what are phytoliths? As the name phytolith suggests, coming from the Greek phyto- meaning plants and lith– meaning stone, they are tiny (less than 50µm) siliceous particles which plants produce. These phytoliths are commonly found within sediments, and can last hundreds of years as they are made of inorganic substances that do not decay when the other organic parts of the plant decay. Phytoliths can also be extracted from residue left on many different artefacts such as teeth (within the dental calculus), tools (such as rocks, worked lithics, scrapers, flakes, etc.) and pottery.


Table 1 & 2: Examples of the descriptors found within the International Code for Phytolith Nomenclature (ICPN), 2005, for use of naming phytoliths.
Figure 1: A bulliform phytolith under a microscope, ©Henri-Georges Nation.

Phytoliths can form numerous striking shapes within the plant cells (figure 1), which gives them a characteristic shape, thus aiding the identification of plants. Due to the vast number of shapes and sizes that phytoliths can come in, researchers compiled the International Code for Phytolith Nomenclature (ICPN), 2005. The ICPN was developed to create a standard protocol which is to be used during the process of naming and describing a new or known phytolith type, as well as a glossary of descriptors to help aid with the naming.

To observe phytoliths, a sediment sample needs to be collected preferably away from any human settlements, as the use of agriculture may have introduced non-native plants to the area. The soil sample is then observed under microscope or even scanning electron microscope (SEM). On the discovery of a phytolith after observation it needs to be named using a maximum of three descriptors, the ICPN (2005) can be used to correctly identify what descriptors should be used.

The first descriptor should be of the shape, either using 3D or 2D descriptor (whichever is more indicative/shows the phytoliths symmetry). The orientation of the phytolith should also be noted. The second descriptor should describe the texture and/or ornamentation, if characteristic or diagnostic and not an artefact of weathering.
The third descriptor should be the anatomical origin, but only when this information is clear and beyond doubt (Madella et al, 2005).

Phytoliths are very important and useful if the sediment they are taken from is hostile to the preservation of fossil pollen, so may be the only evidence available for paleoenvironment or vegetation change.


Balme, J., Paterson, A. 2006. Archaeology in Practice: A Student Guide to Archaeological Analayses. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing. Pg 218.

Madella, M., Alexandre, A., Ball, T. 2005. International Code for Phytolith Nomenclature 1.0. Annals of Botany, 96: 253-260. A .pdf of this paper available here.  

Renfrew, C., Bahn, P. 1991. Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice. London, UK: Thames & Hudson. Pg 249-53.

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