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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.


Dock ensemble


Buttercup ensemble Orache ensemble

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.

Seeds with scale

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


Seed 1a Seed 1b Seed 2
Orache seed Orache seed Redshank nutlet
Seed 3 Seed 4 Seed 5
Charred oat grain Elderberry seed Tormentil seed
Seed 6 Seed 6 Seed 8
Charred barley grain Charred barley grain Raspberry seed
Seed 9 Seed 10a Seed 10b
Dock nutlet Sedge seed Sedge seed
Seed 10c Seed 11a Seed 11b
Sedge seed Knotgrass seed Knotgrass seed
Seed 12 Seed 13 Seed 14a
Pale persicaria seed Barley spikelet (part of) Charred grass grain
Seed 14b Seed 15a Seed 15b
Charred grass grain Grain spikelet with husk Grain spikelet with husk
Seed 16 Seed 17 Seed 18
Barley grain Hazel nut Buttercup seed

Seed information

1a, 1b

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.

Charred barley grain (

Charred barley grain.

Raspberry (
Rubus idaeus).

Dock (
Rumex) nutlet

Docks and sorrels (genus Rumex) are nuisance weeds (called dockweed), but some are grown for their edible leaves. Each seed is a three-angled nutlet (achene). These plants have many uses: Rumex hymenosepalus, a species from N and C America, has been cultivated as a source of tannin (roots contain up to 25% tannin) while leaves and stems are used for a mustard-coloured dye. In Western Europe, dock is used as a traditional remedy for stinging nettle stings.

Sedge (
Carex), family Cyperaceae
There are many different species of this sedge; most are found in wetlands, marshes, calcareous fens, bogs and peatlands.

Knotgrass (
Polygonum aviculare)

Knotgrass is a weed found on waste ground, common in much of Britain except in the far north.

Pale persicaria (
Polygonum lapathifolium), dock family
This plant is a native annual found throughout Britain in waste places, especially on damp soils.

Part of spikelet of barley.

This is a nice fragment of cereal, part of a spikelet of barley. Break up an ear of barley and you get lots of these little stalks, with the grain attached within their spikelets.

Charred grass grain (probably cereal).

15a-b Spikelets with husks.
These well-preserved spikelets are, again, grains with husks, showing excellent preservation. It is unclear whether they are oats or barley.

A whole barley grain.

This shows a whole barley grain with its husk; it shows excellent preservation.

Hazel nut (
Corylus avellana)

Buttercup (

Plant remains

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


Moss 1 Moss 2
Moss 3 Thorn 
  This thorn could be blackthorn or even something like wild apple, very difficult to identify

Author's note

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

Dave's email

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.