Seeds from a Roman Well
In 2009, we took a sample of material from deep in the Roman Well at Tollgate Farm.
Dave Thomas has been painstakingly analysing the content of this sample, taking detailed photographs of the seeds it contains with a digital microscope and identifying them.
Rather than sieving the sample, which can damage the seeds, he allowed the sample to dry naturally and before it was fully dry, delicately separated the seeds from the soil and other particles using a small pointed instrument. He then scanned them under a digital microscope.
Here are some pictures from Dave's report, showing the material as seen under the microscope before the seeds were separated from the remainder.
The first shows a dock seed (L of centre), the second a buttercup seed (centre), and the third an orache seed (top RH corner). Click on a picture for a closer view.
You can get a sense of how small the seeds are from the next picture, which includes a scale. The actual sizes are given in Dave's report.
What follows is my transcription of Dave's report, with the addition of a few pictures which he sent me later. Click here to download his original report as a pdf file.
Waterlogged plant remains can be preserved if the conditions are suitable
Apart from the excellent preservation of the leather in the well material, plant remains, such as seeds, and insects were also preserved. The following seed information was obtained from a sample taken from a depth of six metres. This material was allowed to almost dry and was then broken down into small particles; these in turn were scanned under a digital microscope. The results are shown in this report. [See the pictures above for examples showing seeds under the microscope]
Seeds from the well
The following numbered seed images are identified in greater depth in the "Seed information" section further down the page. Click on the link below a picture to go to the relevant information text
Orache (Atriplex sp) seed (Chenopodiaceae)
The common orache is a native annual weed with a procumbent habit, found on disturbed ground throughout the UK
Persicaria (Polygonum persicaria) nutlet. Redshank.
Redshank is a native summer annual
Charred oat grain
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) seed
A common find on Roman sites, widely used in wine making
A species of Potentilla probably tormentil, P. erecta.The rhizomes of this plant have a high tannin content. The disadvantage for tanning leather is that it is not very large, and therefore many rhizomes are needed to tan a single hide. The roots contain more tannin, weight for weight, than oak bark. A red dye is also obtained from the roots.
Some of the plant remains found in the sample were of moss; the preservation was excellent as you can see from the photographs below.
Click on a picture for a closer view
I’m not an archaeobotanist. I’m more used to excavating and taking photographs on our sites as well as photographing the artefacts found, but this has been an amazing insight into the almost invisible side of archaeology. Each seed, in its own way, is a form of art: so small and yet amazing in shape. I must thank Dr Allan Hall of the University of York for his help and encouragement. Any queries about the seeds, please contact me, Dave Thomas, at
Dry weight of sample: 1.85 kg
Date of material by associated finds: Late 2nd century AD
Stoke-on-Trent Museum Archaeological Society, February 2012.