1. Background

1.1 Soils and archaeology

The relevance of soil science to archaeological investigations has been recognised for several decades. The early work (1950–1970s) of Cornwall (1958), Dimbleby (1966) and Limbrey (1975) was instrumental in demonstrating the potential contribution of soil science to archaeology, albeit with an emphasis on environmental reconstruction. More recently, there has been the emergence of geoarchaeology – the application of earth science techniques to archaeological questions (Renfrew 1976). This was based on the recognition that the bulk of many archaeological sites consists of soils or sediments rather than artefactual or structural evidence (Butzer 1982; French 2003).

Over the last 20 years there have been major advances in analytical techniques that have enabled new questions to be addressed; the sourcing of soils or added materials (Wilson et al. 2006; Church et al. 2007), on-site processes of accumulation and re-distribution (Stein et al. 2003), post-depositional alteration (diagenesis) (Nielsen-Marsh et al. 2007) and bioturbation (mixing by flora and fauna) (Canti 2003), and impacts of anthropogenic processes such as cultivation and manuring and habitation (Bull et al. 1998; Wilson et al. 2008). However, there has been an increasing gulf between the development and validation of research analytical tools and their application in commercial archaeology.

The publication of guidelines in geoarchaeology by English Heritage (2004) has raised awareness of the importance of soil science within archaeology, but there still exists a gap between developing research techniques and the ability to answer questions important to archaeologists.

An informal consultation exercise at the start of the project revealed the problems as perceived by field archaeologists are:

In contrast, many geoarchaeologists complain they are asked to visit excavations where there are no defined archaeological questions for them to address. The result can be time spent describing and sampling soils and sediments to no good purpose. This only serves to reinforce the impression of archaeologists that geoarchaeology is costly and yields few worthwhile results.

A substantial geoarchaeological knowledge base exists; what is lacking is presentation of this material in a manner that is easily accessible, informative and comprehensible to non-specialist archaeologists.


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Last updated: Mon Dec 15 2008