The use of reflectance for the interpretation of natural and anthropogenic charcoal assemblages.

Laura Mcparland, Margaret Collinson, Andrew Scott, Gill Campbell

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Charcoal assemblages occur in both natural and archaeological settings. Cell wall reflectance values of charcoal in polished blocks under oil provide a proxy for temperature of formation. This paper aims to (1) determine whether wildfire charcoals and anthropological charcoals from various pyrotechnical activities can be distinguished using reflectance data and (2) establish if re-charring (i.e. use of charcoal fuel) can be recognised in the archaeological record through analysis of laboratory-produced re-charred charcoals and charcoals from an experimental iron smelt and traditional bronze casting which utilised charcoal fuel. Reflectance frequency data from assemblages representing burning of charcoal, in this case of iron smelting and bronze casting, indicates temperatures from above the mean value of charcoal production (>475°C) up to the maximum temperature reached in the subsequent process (i.e. >475 to >1,100°C). In contrast, wildfire charcoals showed a range of values including material with barely measurable reflectance (minimum values from 0.06% to 0.56%Ro) to maximum reflectance values varying from 1.65%Ro (Tilford) to 3.8%Ro (Zacca). The mean wildfire reflectance indicated temperatures in the range 325–400°C, which can therefore clearly be distinguished from that of the charcoal burning processes. The laboratory-produced re-charred charcoals take on the reflectance value of the highest temperatures experienced; reflectance values were not constrained by the original temperature of formation. High temperatures are most easily achievable by the burning of charcoal fuel, and hence high reflectance charcoals are likely to represent re-charred charcoal. Therefore, this quantitative reflectance method can be used in archaeology to determine the minimum temperature of formation of charcoals in anthropological processes which involve fire, can indicate the likelihood of use of charcoal or wood as fuel and can distinguish between an assemblage of high temperature anthropogenic charcoals and charcoals formed from natural wildfire.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)249-261
Number of pages13
JournalArchaeological and Anthropological Sciences
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2009


  • Charcoal - Metallurgy - Fuels - Reflectance - Petrography - Wildfire

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