Education  Research  

Faculty of Humanities  

Course  Student research  

  • The soil speaks it all!

    • Course
    • Faculty of Humanities

    Before I came to the Netherlands, I had a very little knowledge about the archaeology of this country except for Krijn, the first Dutch Neanderthal fossils discovered in a coast of Zeeland. So, when I received an email from the Archon committee mentioning that a three-day course about geoarchaeology would be taking place in VU Amsterdam, my mind started to wonder about the archaeological contents below the Netherlands soil. Little did I know that this uniformly flat land hides a very complicated geological history and the richness of archaeological contents throughout time.

    Moreover, my experience in conducting a geological research in a newly discovered archaeological site in Indonesia, called Semedo in Central Java teaches that I had a very limited knowledge about the significance of studying the Holocene soil, since I was targeting the older Pleistocene layers in search of the first ancient animal and human occupation in Java Island. Therefore, whenever I discovered a heavily weathered soil with presumably no prospect of bone fossils, I just pretended not to see them! Yes, my willing to repent from ignorance for younger soils is the first and main reason that I’m really interested to this course. Another motivation is that in the second day, this course also offers a full-day fieldwork! I began to imagine the pleasure of travelling and discovering new places and finally I could use this opportunity to see something new in the nature after years of doing endless paperwork and university tasks in front of the laptop. So, without taking many considerations, I replied the email with a big bold “YES!” (no, I’m just kidding).

    Day 1 – Saying ‘Hi’ to the soils!
    I was running through the corridors of the main building of VU Amsterdam when my watch beeped its 9 o’clock notification. “Let’s get lost!” is my personal tagline, but it isn’t fun at all when you get lost in a building with complicated room-numbering system in such an inappropriate time, especially when the course was about to get started. And finally, after a long drama involving stairs and lift, I made it up to the class and....there were still only few people there! When I was told that there would be only six participants in the course, I shouted in reflex, “What?!” and thought that how such an interesting topic with a fieldwork opportunity would attract a very few participants! (And finally, only 4 participants showed up for this course)

    The course began with a short introduction, and both our instructors, Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving (VU Amsterdam) and Prof. Ian Simpson (Stirling University) made the atmosphere more joyful yet relax. In the first session of the course, we learned about the pedogenesis (the formation of soil layers) and the Quaternary Geology of the Netherlands along with all processes that shaped the landscape to the present condition. Dr. Kluiving presented in a very interesting and interactive way that such a complicated and complex issue could be understood in a short moment. The thing that I really love and remember very well until this time is about how the river system of ancient Netherlands developed and “competed” to each other until the present condition. Now every time I cycle on the bank of Rhine river which passes through the very heart of Leiden, I can still imagine the long journey that the river has gone through (you finally make it there, kiddo!).

    The important thing to embed in the brain is that the Netherlands not only possess boring and monotonous flat lowlands, but also undulated hill areas that scattered through the eastern and southern Netherlands. These areas are associated with a specific geologic time, called Pleistocene, also identified as a morphology called push-moraine that developed during the glacial periods. Meanwhile the Holocene deposits contain more soil deposits extended from northern to southern part via western Netherlands (note: register to the course to learn more! :D).

    Dr. Kluiving explained about the development of Netherlands river systems (it somehow looks like the body of a lizard…).

    The second session was about the mapping practice, where we were assigned to analyse the geological and soil map of Gelderland Valley that extended between Ede and Amersfoort. Also we were indirectly tasked to.....learn new geological vocabularies in Dutch! Yes, the map was published in Dutch so we had to dedicate several minutes to translate the legends to understand the whole map. But thanks to Dr. Kluiving for being so patient to guide us in analyzing the contexts of the map. Afterall, it was fun to see at those colourful maps and examine how different landscapes are being used in very different ways. This activity also became an important basic to understand the landscapes that we were going to visit the next day (when you will say a bunch of “Oh!” or “Aha!” frequently).

    The topographic map of Gelderland Valley, a refreshment for the eyes!

    After having a lunch break, we then headed to the soil lab to see the lacquer peels of soils taken from various sites across NW Europe. Before reaching the lab, Dr. Kluiving explained some lacquer peels that were hung on the wall next to the stairs and had a short discussion about the amazing features and processes that influenced the development of some particular characteristics. In the lab, we did a thorough description about the characteristics of the soils, such as the colour, texture, the contents of the organic matters, and many more. Even though the determination of those characteristics should refer to some standards such as Munsell soil chart, the activity was more complicated that it sounds because of our perception and subjectivity to match the colour of the soil with the standards, and therefore arguments sometimes popped out across the room! This session was then concluded with the discussion about the processes that operated during the development of the soil profiles to shape their appearance.

    Left: some interesting features observed in lacquer peers.
    Right: explanation on a lacquer peel sample by Dr. Kluiving.

    We then moved back to the classroom for another session by Prof. Simpson about the dating methods used in soil analysis. This is one of the most interesting sessions for me because for my thesis, I am going to deal with a lot of dating (no, not kind of Sat-night dating!). This session was then concluded with more exercise about soil characteristics and we were now allowed to touch and feel the soil samples that had been prepared into powdery texture. During my undergraduate study, we were trained to differentiate between sand, silt and sand particles, which always incorporated the senses, by which I mean (ahem) tasting. Yes, taste them with your very own tongue! Fortunately for this session we did it more visually, so that we won’t get any stomach problem during the fieldwork the next day! (even though I was very curious about how soils with different organic contents will taste like... yumm!)