Day 1

On my way to the Archon course ‘Geoarchaeology – Theories and Practice 2015-2016’ in Amsterdam, I am starring out the window of a fully packed train. The sun is starting to rise over the by-passing landscape which makes for a pretty view. Still partially unknown to the heaps of information buried under the surface, I wonder what this course will bring. Led by dr. Sjoerd Kluiving (VU Amsterdam) and Prof. Ian A. Simpson (University of Stirling), we start the day with an introduction on the formation of the Quaternary geology in the Netherlands, and the associated processes. Next, the landscape and soil of the Netherlands and north-west Europe is discussed. Some important basic geological distinctions, like pedogenesis-geogenesis, alluviation-illuviation and sediment-soil, were highlighted and the process of podsolization was explained. 

The second part of the day was devoted to part of the geoarchaeological toolkit. Using a topographical map of Amersfoort, we looked at the different ways in which the geological characteristics given in the legend of the map, could be used to study archaeologically relevant questions, such as ‘What is the influence of the different types of soil/sediment on the way in which past societies arranged their agricultural allotments?’. Next, we went down under ground and examined the different structures of soil through several lacquers peels.

Dr. Kluiving holding our carbic podzol lacquer peelOur description of the lacquer peel

As can be seen, our carbic podzol contained enough food for the geoarchaeological brain. We ended our first day with what must be the favorite activity of every geo(archaeo)logist; seeing, feeling and perhaps even tasting actual soil samples. On the basis of the pocket version of the characteristics of soil, i.e. the ‘Munsell soil color charts’ and the ‘soil texture triangle’, we were able to distinguish between different types of soil. Seeing as I was still a geological newbie at this point, many questions arose regarding the connection between the toolkit and archaeological research. Luckily, dr. Kluiving and Prof. Simpson did not shy away for these, and the many more questions that were fired at them. 

Day 2

The day starts with a bumpy ride to the first location of our coring field trip, the Wekeromse Zand, since our tour bus gets stuck inside the muddy surface (pointed out by dr. Kluiving in the picture). This could however not stop us and we continued our path on foot.

Three cleverly chosen coring locations made sure that we would get a very good view on the difference in soil formations which can be present in one area, and the way in which these differences have been shaped over the decades. Since we started this day in one of the higher parts of the Netherlands (+ 25 NAP), the sandy soils introduced our muscles to the intensive part of the geoarchaeological toolkit. The hard part of the coring process was however still to come. 

Our first coring locationOur second coring locationOur third coring location

After waiting for one hour on a bus driver who was nowhere to be found, which gave us the time to discuss and evaluate on our past activities and future assignments, we traveled about 75 kilometers west-north-west and sunk 26 meters, ending up in the wet soils of Amstelveen which lie 1 meter below sea level. The is where the hardcor(e)(ing) started. Due to the fact that we ran behind on schedule, dr. Kluiving decided to bravely take upon himself the task of coring and showing us as much of the soil in the amount of time we had. It soon became clear why the Edelman auger, which we had used in Wekeromse Zand, was not suited for these wet and clayey soils. We therefor had switched to the gouge auger. The end score of the day was an impressive 7,10 meters deep (- 8.10 NAP), which was reached by dr. Kluiving and a courageous participant of the course. This meant that they were able to reach the Dutch basal peat layer (visible on the picture at the end of the drill core) and we had traveled back at least 5500 years in time. 

Day 3

The final day of the course started off with a practical lecture, given by Prof. Simpson, on thin section micromorphology. He showed us the many ways in which a small square of soil could reveal so much on the area from which it originates. Take for instance the three pictures below. Fltr: bone, manure, fungi spores. These indicators can be used to study the diet of past societies, the way they fertilized their agricultural soils and the grazing locations of their cattle, respectively.

Eager as we were, many questions were asked and Prof. Simpson did not hesitate to explain and discuss until everything was clear. 

The afternoon was devoted to a mini geoarchaeological conference in which each of the participants gave a 15 min presentation on the subject of their final paper for this course. Even though we had only had 2 days to think on this, dr. Kluiving and Prof. Simpson had been able to teach us enough to all come up with highly relevant geoarchaeological research questions. This was also noted by both teachers who applauded us for our broadmindedness. 

Coming up with a subject was not easy. I had started this course with a lack of knowledge on geoarchaeology and found it difficult to incorporate it into my own research. During my Research Master, I have specialized in (ethno)archaeobotany and had recently conducted research on the effects of carbonization on barley grain kernels. As my knowledge on geoarchaeology grew during the course, my mind was also opened up to the possibilities of incorporating geoarchaeology in archaeobotanical research, specifically into my previously conducted research. I have gotten curious to the effects of different types of soil and sediment on archaeobotanical macro-remains and the ways in which this information can be used to optimize sampling strategies. This is what I will be studying in my final paper. 

After the successful mini conference, we end this informative and pleasant course with an evaluation while enjoying a drink at a café nearby. Even though this is the first time this course is given in this format, it has taught me a lot on geoarchaeology and the possibilities of incorporating it in my future research. Satisfied, I travel back to Groningen, staring at a landscape from which I now know holds many secrets to be uncovered.