Two Early Finds of Gold-of-Pleasure (Camelina Sp.) in Middle Neolithic and Chalcolithic Sites in Western France

By Bouby, Laurent | Antiquity, June 1998 | Go to article overview
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Two Early Finds of Gold-of-Pleasure (Camelina Sp.) in Middle Neolithic and Chalcolithic Sites in Western France

Bouby, Laurent, Antiquity

Camelina is a herbaceous plant belonging to the Cruciferae family. The species comprises interfertile subspecies: wild forms, weeds and cultivated plants. All types share an erect growth and produce yellow to white flowers and pyriform fruit. The wild original form, named Camelina microcarpa (Andrz.) E. Schmid, belongs to the steppic flora of eastern Europe and southwest Asia. It has been a secondary introduction into western Europe as a weed in cultivated fields. We also find different species in temperate European flora today derived from this wild ancestor.

The domestic form, gold-of-pleasure or false flax (Camelina sativa ssp. sativa (Mill.) E. Schmid), was mostly grown for the edible oil, amounting to some 30% of the seeds, but also as fodder and for the fibres of the stem, as a textile plant. It has now quite disappeared from European agriculture but it was an important crop in the last century. According to Maurizio (1932), there was a loss of two-thirds in the cultivated area of gold-of-pleasure in France and Germany between 1861 and 1882. Gold-of-pleasure cultivation was of special importance in northern and central Europe, where it seems to have developed during the Iron age (Knorzer 1978). Gold-of-pleasure cultivation is of special interest because of its fast growing rate (roughly 100 days) and great hardiness. The plant can endure cold as well as heat and drought.

In addition to the truly wild ancestor plant, Camelina microcarpa, and to the cultivated subspecies, other forms, growing as weeds, can be observed (Hanf 1983). The main one is probably Camelina alyssum (Mill.) E. Schmid, which thrives mostly in flax fields all over Europe. The plant is perfectly adapted to the flax crop and is now greatly declining as flax cultivation decreases. Another subspecies found as a weed in flax fields is Camelina macrocarpa Wierzb., found only in north and east Europe. Others subspecies grow as weeds in cereal fields: ssp. pilosa (DC) E. Schmid in central Europe and ssp. rumelica Velen. in south and southeast Europe.

Under botanical criteria, wild and cultivated forms can only be distinguished by seed size and fruit morphology. Seeds of cultivated Camelina are bigger - between 1.5 and 2 mm according to Zohary & Hopf (1994) - than those of wild plants, and pods do not open automatically when ripe in the cultivated form. But fruit remains are rather rare in excavations, and seed size has to be used with prudence. Experimental weed-seed charring (Wilson 1984) has shown that generally length and width shrink while thickness increases. This deformation varies greatly with the species and experimental conditions (e.g. temperature, humidity) and it is impossible from a carbonized seed to deduce its original size with precision. This is why we will use seed size as an indicator more than a discrimination factor.

Distinguishing between cultivated and wild gold-of-pleasure seeds often remains difficult in archaeobotany, when relying solely on botanical criteria. Nevertheless, archaeological data can be used as indirect criteria. For example, a concentration of seeds found in a storage context will be helpful in recognizing a cultivated plant. A species pure or dominant in a rubbish dump can sometimes be regarded as cultivated. On the other hand, if the plant is very scarce, mixed with a dominant crop and some weeds, one may consider this plant as a weed.

The earliest records of Camelina in eastern and central Europe are generally regarded to come from 3rd and 2nd millennia BC levels (Zohary & Hopf 1994; Schoch et al. 1988). The plant could first have been taken into cultivation during the late Bronze age (Knorzer 1978; Schultze-Motel 1979).

In western Europe, and particularly in France, our knowledge of the introduction and the beginning of the cultivation of Camelina is still inadequate. Up to now the plant was considered not to have appeared in France before the Iron age. Here we report the discovery of two new finds which authorize the discussion of the appearance of Camelina in France and, at a larger scale, its distribution over Europe.

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Two Early Finds of Gold-of-Pleasure (Camelina Sp.) in Middle Neolithic and Chalcolithic Sites in Western France


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