Patrick E. McGovern and Rudolph H. Michel
An archaeological excavation will often yield a set of seemingly interconnected data that appear to be linked together by a specific human activity, though convincing evidence for that activity may or may not be present. When organic materials are directly involved-as they often are, since human beings and much of what they surround themselves with are largely constituted of organics-a satisfactory solution to an archaeological puzzle will be all the more elusive, because of the ease with which most organic compounds degrade, dissolve, and disappear. On the other hand, if an organic compound that is highly specific to a given plant or animal were preserved and identified, this evidence could well prove to be the “missing link” in a chain of reasoning. Apropos of how chemistry can provide the missing link in resolving an archaeological problem, see Evans 1990.
The field of organic microanalysis applied to archaeological remains, especially the contents of pottery vessels, has rapidly developed over the past two decades (see Biers and McGovern 1990, for an overview). Lipids, resins, dyes, perfume ingredients, and other organic compounds have been found to be well enough preserved in certain archaeological contexts-usually either in a dry climate or, alternatively, a waterlogged environment where microbial activity and autoxidation is reduced-that they can be extracted and analyzed by a variety of techniques (gas and high performance liquid chromatography, mass spectrometry, infrared and UV-visible spectroscopy,