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 Soils and Archaeology

Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP
Virtual Karak Resources Project - VKRP

John E. Foss, Yul Roh,
and Debra Phillips
University of Tennessee and
Oak Ridge National Laboratory

SOILS AND ARCHAEOLOGY

The disciplines of soil science and archaeology make a natural combination to study landscapes and environmental history of sites from previous civilizations. Archaeologists have been excavating sites for centuries, but scientific excavations have only taken place for perhaps the last 70 to 80 years. Soil science has been involved in archaeological excavations for 50 to 60 years in the United States, but in the early years only soil chemistry was used to evaluate the impact of humans on the soil system. In the last few decades, more sub-disciplines of soil science have become interested in the archaeology, especially pedology (study of soil formation and classification). In many archaeological projects, pedology is one member of a team of scientists studying a site; team members may include scientists from geology, botany, zoology, palynology, surveying, and other disciplines.

Perhaps a definition of soil is in order to establish the boundaries and general nature of this natural resource. Soils are defined as natural bodies on the earth’s surface with unique morphological characteristics resulting from past or present combinations of physical, chemical, and biological weathering processes. The upper boundary is clearly defined but the lower boundary is quite variable; generally soils include the upper 2 meters of the earth’s surface. Soils, however, will vary from just a few centimeters in thickness to 20 to 30 meters in some areas of the tropics. This upper surface of the earth’s crust is where most of the archaeological activity takes place and thus the interest in soils.

The applications of soil science to archaeology used in this article come from the study of al-Mudaybi’, a Moabite fort, and from the survey of sites on the Karak Plateau in Jordan. The soil investigation was initiated in 1997 and continued in field seasons in 1999 and 2001. These field seasons provided many examples of using soil interpretations for clarifying the archaeological settings and specific stratigraphic characteristics of sites. In this article we will provide some general information on soils and landscapes and their application to archaeological investigations. A general study of the soils on the Karak Plateau is available in an earlier VKRP article (Foss, 2002) http://www.vkrp.org/studies/environmental/plateau-soils/

The study of soils at archaeological sites includes two major components; these are the (1) field study of landscapes and description of individual soil profiles and (2) laboratory characterization of soils. The field study comprises a vital aspect for all future interpretations of stratigraphy and ultimately the environmental history of the site. Field soil morphology includes detailed evaluation of soil horizons that provide descriptions of soil texture, structure, color, consistence, horizon boundaries and classification. Figure 1 shows a soil profile (cross section of soil) in Field A at al-Mudaybi’; note the alternating dark and light-colored bands in the lower portion of the profile. The dark layers are periods of stability when organic matter was accumulating in the soil from plant decomposition, and light-colored zones are areas of rapid deposition of wind-blown sediment. Many archaeological sites are in a dynamic position on the landscape, such as along rivers and streams, base of colluvial slopes, or in areas of eolian (wind) deposition. Loess deposits (Figure 2) were the dominant parent material for soils on the Karak Plateau, although a wide range of loess thickness occurs on the various landscapes.

Laboratory characterization of soils for archaeological interpretations is used to verify and supplement the field morphology of soil profiles. In addition, laboratory analysis can provide information on soil system modification resulting from human occupation. One of the best examples is the amount of Pb and other heavy metals introduced into soil systems during Roman times in the Mediterranean region.

 

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