Original Article

Vegetation History and Archaeobotany

, Volume 16, Issue 1, pp 61-70

First online:

Medieval plant depictions as a source for archaeobotanical research

  • Ülle SillasooAffiliated withInstitute of Ecology at Tallinn University Email author 

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This paper summarises the research methodology and most important results of a study which was carried out on flowering plant depictions (representations) in late medieval religious paintings from southern central Europe. This approach derives from the studies of material culture by historians of everyday life. Plant depictions may be used as a source for archaeobotanical research and studies into vegetation history after fully recognising their particularities. Firstly, the pictures show “the reality effect” and not reality itself, and an abundance of apparently realistically depicted objects; secondly, the research must be fully contextual, considering both the contemporary cultural background and participants involved. Thirdly, as pictures are great mosaics of different experience and knowledge, their language is symbolic and their relationship with geographical space uncertain. This, however, does not mean that reading and interpreting pictures is impossible. The major results of this study include the list of plant species not discovered from archaeobotanical research; the knowledge that the frequencies of occurrence of plant depictions might correspond to their occurrence in real cultural spaces that also may be indicated in pictures; and it highlights the importance of using several types of sources when pursuing research into the history, uses and perceptions of plants in the medieval period.


Plant depictions Religious art Later Middle Ages Southern central Europe Archaeobotanical approach