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A comparison of three methods for the extraction of phytoliths from sediments
Journal of Archaeological Science
  • William E Boyd, Southern Cross University
  • Carol J Lentfer, Southern Cross University
Document Type
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Peer Reviewed
This paper compares three methods commonly used to extract fossil phytoliths from sediments. A basic procedure using heavy liquid flotation and oxidation is compared with two other procedures across a range of sediment types commonly encountered in archaeological studies. The three procedures are: (1) a heavy liquid flotation method (HLF); (2) a burning method (POW); and (3) another heavy liquid flotation method (HLFPol) similar to HLF, but adapted to allow the extraction of pollen and spores as well as phytoliths, within a single process. Comparisons of the resulting output using these three techniques for phytolith extraction show that different methods can produce different results, and therefore basic techniques should be modified according to the characteristics of the sediments for which they are used. While all the techniques showed similarities in assemblage results, there were problems associated with disaggregation and effective separation of light and heavy fractions, in particular with the POW procedure. The evidence suggests that morphotype selection occurred both within the physical sorting process and in the process of inverting slides to shed excess residue; in both cases it is difficult to suggest a solution to the problem. The results show clearly that the advantages gained by using the POW procedure are largely outweighed by the problems encountered with its use, and because of possible size/shape selection, it is not recommended for general extraction procedures. The heavy liquid flotation procedures, on the other hand, are shown to produce more concentrated residues with higher levels of clarity and less potential than the POW procedure for sample bias. The use of a non-toxic heavy liquid, sodium polytungstate, now allows the process to be used in relative safety. It is recommended that analysts use heavy liquid flotation procedures with chemical treatments specific to sediment requirements.
Citation Information
Lentfer, CJ & Boyd, WE 1998, 'A comparison of three methods for the extraction of phytoliths from sediments', Journal of Archaeological Science, vol. 25, no. 12, pp. 1159-1183.

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