Detection of burning of plant materials in the archaeological record by changes in the refractive indices of siliceous phytoliths

Rivka Elbaum, Steve Weiner*, Rosa M. Albert, Michael Elbaum

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

70 Scopus citations


The most resilient remains of plants in most archaeological sites are the siliceous phytoliths-special cells that are partially or completely silicified during the plant's life. These cells have characteristic morphologies, and thus the phytoliths can often be used to identify the taxonomic affinities of plants brought to an archaeological site. In order to determine what they were used for, other means of analysis are needed. We present here a method to distinguish burnt from unburnt phytolith assemblages. The method is based on measuring the refractive index (RI) of individual phytoliths. The phytoliths even from a single plant have a range of RI values. Burning a phytolith sample causes a shift to higher RI. Comparing burnt and unburnt samples we demonstrate that it is possible to differentiate between them based on the fraction of phytoliths with RI higher than 1·440. This serves as a basis for a simplified mode of measurement that requires only the use of a petrographic light microscope and a mineral oil of R1 1·440. We apply the simplified method to two Natufian samples from Hayonim cave (Western Galilee, Israel).

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)217-226
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2003
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Arlene Rosen and Ruty Shahack-Gross for the phytolith samples, and Edna Shechtman for the help in the statistic analysis. This research was supported by THE ISRAEL SCIENCE FOUNDATION (Center of Excellence, grant No. 302/00) to S.W., and the Kimmel Center for Archaeological Science at the Weizmann Institute.


  • Burning
  • Fire
  • Opal
  • Phytolith
  • Refractive index


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