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Pollen analysis, or Palynology, is a type of environmental archaeology in which microscopes are used to analyse the range of plant pollens present in archaeological layers: these can tell us what crops, vegetation or ground cover were likely to have been present when a layer was deposited.
Pollen is part of the reproductive system of plants - tiny grains are discharged like dust from the male plant and rely on wind and insects to be transported to female plants.
Put simply, it is a method for investigating former vegetation by means of the pollen grains (and spores) that plants produce (Fægri and Iversen 1989; Moore 1991).
These sub-microfossils are typically found preserved in abundance in a wide variety of wet and acidic sedimentary deposits, such as lake muds and peats.
In cases where several pollen profiles have been studied across a landscape (e.g.
Oldfield (1993, 16) comments that ‘interpreting palaeoecological data is rarely a matter of unambiguous, objective certainty’.
Fossil pollen assemblages cannot, as yet, be directly translated into plant abundances, or used to produce maps of vegetation cover except at the broadest (landscape) scales, although research into modelling procedures is advancing in this direction.
One central question that still needs to be addressed is defining exactly where the pollen that accumulates in any sediment has come from.
Walker 1984; Tipping 1994; Edwards and Whittington 2003).
Consequently, the supporting references included here are necessary somewhat selective and the focus concentrated narrowly upon some of the more recent developments within the field, particularly where these relate to the interplay between people and the environment.
Pollen records within these materials can often be extremely difficult for palynologists to interpret, affected as they may be by problems such as poor pollen preservation or mixing (Dimbleby 1985).