Interdisciplinary Archaeology: The underestimated possibilities of geological practices 


It is well known that the importance of geological methods and theories within archaeological research is of upmost importance to understand the context of our findings. However, the further role geology could play within archaeological research is often underestimated. As archaeology is a rather young scientific discipline, and is formed by its interdisciplinary approaches, it is important to continue exploring the possibilities other disciplines might offer archaeology as a field of research. Every now and then, we (archaeologists) would do well to be reminded of this, and to re-explore other disciplines that may hold innovative and revealing approaches, methods and techniques that would benefit our own research.

The entanglement of archaeology with geology is deep, and though we might think we have learned all there is of geology and what it has to offer to archaeology, I think every self-respecting archaeologist should be open and willing to refresh, update, or even upgrade  its geological knowledge every once in a while. Therefore I have chosen to do a Geoarchaeological workshop at the VU (Amsterdam), provided by the ARCHON research school of archaeology. This three-day workshop has been refresehing and eye-opening to me, and has allowed me to reconsider and broaden my own thesis research. Don’t believe me? Let me explain to you why:  

The first day was all about re-excavating our geological knowledge as we kicked off with some very basic information about the origins of the dutch landscape. The influences of the Saalian glaciation, river and sea deposits, eolian (a.k.a. wind) deposits and peat formations have formed the landscape as we know it today. Apart from these sedimentary processes, soil formation processes provide us with information that sedimentary formations cannot: presence of well-developed soils for instance, indicate hiatuses (stable periods of no erosion/accumulation), different soil types may indicate different human activity as the kind of soil that is formed is dependent on its parent material, climatic factors, organisms, time and relief/drainage. Human activity found in relation to certain soils may thus help us understand why certain areas were preferred, as the soils are a proxy to reconstruct and understand the former landscapes. In addition, we got our hands dirty by examining actuals soils and determining their traits in order to understand their origin and formation processes.

To practice what we preached, the second day was devoted to a field-trip to two distinct types of areas that mark the dutch landscape: The Pleistocene formed hilly outskirts of the Wekeromse Zand and the flat landscape of Amstelveen. Here, we did some serious coring into the dwellings of these different areas. learning us to recognize, for instance, the naturally formed podzols (both completely and partly formed) and understand the locations of these soil types in relation to the relief, as was the case at the Wekeromse Zand, and to recognize the younger thickly accumulated sediments of the Holocene deposits at Amstelveen.

The third and final day has been the most eye-opening to me in terms of underestimated and not-often-enough-used methods: for this day kicked off with my first ever introduction to micromorphology. Of course, I knew of the existence of this technique, yet I never really realized how this exactly works and what this technique could actually offer archaeologists. Which is, actually, quite a lot. Thin sections of in-situ sediment samples were placed under the microscope, allowing the examination of traits within the composition of sediments and soils otherwise hardly visible to the naked eye. In addition, human influences or biologically created disturbances, such as worm-activity, could be recognized that otherwise may gone unnoticed. Micromorphology could also be really useful to understand the integrity of stratigraphy and allows the distinction between seemingly heterogeneous layers.    

But how has this workshop helped me with my own thesis research as I previously mentioned? My research focuses on the integrity of a techno-cultural assemblage, the so called Châtelperronian,  of which the authorship is unknown (Neanderthals or Anatomically Modern Humans) due to the possible high occurrence of post-depositional processes that may have resulted from the highly fluctuating climate during the times theses assemblages were deposited. I mainly try to reconstruct the possible post-depositional processes that have occurred by focusing on the artefacts themselves: their distribution within the site as well as the orientation of all elongated artefacts. certain patterns within these may be indicative of certain processes. However, the precise distinction between such processes are hard to observe. The geoarchaeological workshop has made me realize that it will we worth advising some geomorphological maps and micromorphological analyses to help me distinguish different types of post-depositional processes.

As this has convinced me that geoarchaeological implementations on archaeological research are very beneficial, I can imagine you may still not be fully convinced. And therefore I would like to tell you the following. Within the workshop, all the archaeologists, having different backgrounds and different specializations, were able to implement new methods, concepts, or approaches to a great variety of archaeological research.