Day 1: Another one bites the dust

Having already participated in the first, more theoretical part of the Archon geoarchaeology course, I was very curious what would await me in the practical part. Definitely more soils and sediments. Upon my late arrival, I was not disappointed: the task was to examine lacquer peels and to infer from their composition of horizons the kind of soil type on the peel sample. For doing so, the first step was really to determine the different horizons based on the visibly different colours and textures of the soil sample. As we all knew, these differences between the horizons were due to soil forming processes influenced by factors such as climate, organisms/vegetation, parent material, time and relief/drainage (CleOPaTRa in short [the ‘Richard Of York Gave Battle In Vain’ of geology]) and were, naturally, individual for each soil type. After doing so, we ‘measured’ the colour via Munsell as well as the fine -/coarseness of the material in each horizon, which proved to be equally a subjective task. Lastly, we assigned each horizon a number and a letter equivalent to the kind of soil horizon, e.g. the ‘O’ horizon stands for the top layer organic material. After having collected all these data, one should be able to determine the soil type now, which, as turned out in the group discussion of our cases, were mostly podzols, podzols with a layer created by anthropogenic interferences, i.e. an anthrosol, on top of it (fig. 1) and other podzol variations (haarpodzol, for instance).

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Fig. 1: The lacquer peel of a podzol with a thick (plaggic) anthrosol layer on top of it analysed by our group.

However, naturally, there are more soil types than just the mere podzol and its variations. Moreover, one has to consider soils formed by human influence as well, especially when dealing with samples from the beginning of the Holocene and onwards. For exemplifying this, this exercise had the creation of landscape profiles of three archaeological sites on the Northern Isles of Scotland (Netherskail Marwick, Old Scatness, Tofts Ness), which were used during different time periods (Late Neolithic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Late Norse and Medieval times), as objective. Via various websites, such as, we identified the solid geology, soil types, agricultural land classification and archaeological sites and landscapes at said locations and fed our profiles with the data. This exercise should help us to think about and understand the formation of anthrosols in regards of the different ways of lives of people during different time periods. As a method used in geoarchaeology, it also showed us its biases and limitations.

Since especially determining the texture of the material has proven to be difficult, the last exercise aimed to sharpen exactly that – our sense for the texture of the material, accurate to the micrometre. We were given samples of different depths of which we ‘munselled’ the colour and measured the texture again (fig. 2). In addition, we also needed to give indication about the structure of the texture, i.e. slightly silty sand and so on. This kind of analysis required more senses than just the vision: much feeling and tasting was involved (yum!).

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Fig. 2: Samples of different depth. Traces of close examination are visible.

Day 2: Encounters of the clay kind

After the preparatory first day, today revolved around testing our skills in the field. First stop was at Wekeromse Zand. There, we took three coring samples in three different locations. The first point was located next to a field, which has been in agricultural use. Overall, the terrain was quite sandy (drift sand area due to Aeolian processes) and via the ArcGIS Collector app we could see that we are dealing with a podzol region with cover sand at the field to which we were standing next to. The first coring samples were taken in four groups within a distance of about 10 m in between each other. Overall, they showed, moving from the edge of the field towards its middle, a thickening and broadening (plaggic) anthrosol horizon above a podzol (“Stop saying that!”) (figs. 3 – 6). These irregularities might be explained by the undulating landscape character of the field.


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Fig. 3: Preparations for taking our coring sample. 

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Fig. 4: Professor Ian Simpson teaching us his coring skills


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Fig. 5: Our coring sample showing a podzol with a plaggic anthrosol. 

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Fig. 6: Professor Ian Simpson and Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving contemplating our sample.

Afterwards we moved into a forest on the Wekeromse Zand area, right next to the field. The landscape there was quite different from the one encountered at the field, being very hilly (fig. 7). As our coring samples showed, this was due to accumulated drift sand (“…the Aeolian thing again?”) (fig. 8). The reason why it is drift sand and not a Pleistocene formation is that the sand had a rather greyish, ‘dirty’ colour. If it were originated from a Pleistocene formation, it would have a different, ‘clean’ colour, more yellowish and less greyish (thank Munsell). Moreover, further down the cover of drift sand would probably lay a podzol as well, however it was unreachable for us at that time.

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Fig. 7: Hilly landscape of the forest. 

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Fig. 8: Our coring sample consisting mostly of drift sand and a weak humus.

As a last coring spot at Wekeromse Zand, we walked to the open, sand dune area (fig. 10). There, we looked at a sequence of soil horizons, which was nicely visible at one of the wooded slopes (fig. 9). The cover sand situation was clearly observable as well as the podzol underneath it. We also did a coring in the sand dunes, on whose horizons the difference between drift and Pleistocene sands was noticeably to see: here, the sand had a nicely yellowish tone to its colour.

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Fig. 9: Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving explaining the different horizons visible at the slope.               

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Fig. 10: One can see why people prefer this open, sandy landscape.

 Now it was time to leave the Wekeromse Zand and to move on to our second and last stop, the low lands of the Western Netherlands at Amstelveen. A quick look on the ArcGIS collector app showed, we were on a gleysol area. The difference between the high- and lowlands of the Netherlands was nicely visible by the sluice next to which we took our last two coring samples for the day. The first was taken in the lowlands at around -2 m under NAP, whereas the second was even lower, at -4 m NAP. Overall, they both showed rather humid conditions with nice smelling peat layers. In comparison, however, the ‘lower’ sample was ‘less worked’ by human activity than the upper one, the disturbed layer being much thinner, for instance. During the coring of the lower sample we decided to get deeper to the bottom of the soil. This was a fascinating as well as equally dirty endeavour, as it produced nice clay coring samples, which were, at the same time, very wet and liquid. The fascinating thing about these clay samples was now that, the deeper we got, the older they became (we were at around 10000 ago at one point). They were of varying blue/grey colour and consistency too. In some horizons we even found some clams (sometimes smaller clams in bigger clams), which could have been used as in situ data for dating.

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Fig. 11: Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving taking a coring sample at the higher point of the low lands.

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Fig. 12: The clay core samples from the lower spot of the low lands.

Day 3: I know what you did 10000 years ago – hidden stories in thin sections

The morning of the third and last day we spent with what the next step of any geoarchaeological investigation would be: the microscopic examination of the micromorphology on thin sections taken as a sample from an archaeological site, in this case from the three sites of day 1. We examined the samples for different criteria such as microstructure, the composition of the coarse as well as fine minerals, organic material, anthropic inclusions and pedofeatures. The composition of the thin sections is, naturally, directly influenced by the CleOPaTRa factors as well as anthropogenic activities. The impact of the latter component was especially nice visible since the people lived in different ways during the different time periods. On these grounds, it was visible, for instance, how the amount and quality of the pedofeatures changes considerably when comparing the features of the Neolithic site Tofts Ness with the Iron Age site Old Scatness. A considerable rise in the amount of excremental pedofeatures at the latter site is clearly visible, indicating either a cesspit or the use of manure as fertilizer for the fields. A nice addition to the examination process was the scrutiny of the thin sections under polarised light, which showed the coarse and fine material in an eerie, spacey reversed colour scheme. As hypnotising as these light effects might have been, they made it possible to discern different details on the components, entailing criteria such as structure as well as colours.

After this fascinating view into the micro – verse of micromorphology, it was our turn to show what we have learned during these past days and how we would incorporate geoarchaeology in our own research. Each of us chose our own topic, presenting new research themes such as crysols, identity, and geoarchaeology in the setting of a maritime cultural landscape as well as others such as landscape formation processes and land use over time in the context of a reciprocal relationship between landscape and people. The course was concluded with a quick synthesis of the course and a reflection of the newly learned information as well as aspects.

A few words at the end – what did actually stick to my short term memory student brain?

Overall, I found the course quite enjoyable, the kind of knowledge that was communicated not only useful, but also offering new perspectives for future research methods in archaeology. The atmosphere in the group was harmonious and interested too, which created nice working conditions and made working on the group assignments pleasant. Personally, I think learning how to be able to distinguish and explain soil horizons and formations is important for our understanding of how the archaeological record is deposited and preserved within the ground. Apart from that, the geoarchaeological information provides us with empirical data that can give us a clear notion about land use in the past as well as anthropogenic alterations of the landscape and, naturally, how these choices by past humans were influenced by the soil types and formation processes in the past. Especially the clay coring during the second day at Amstelveen had a bit the overtone of time travel: not only were the samples of deeper depths incredibly old, finding actual clams within them really showed how this whole area was once part of the North Sea. Considering the other field exercises, I think they all showed what vital information geoarchaeology has to offer in terms of reconstructing the past landscape people lived in, much of the information being even online available for free. Because of these low costs and the readily accessible information, it should not be too difficult to create preparatory landscape profiles for sites investigated by a project. Based on this, I believe it might be actually of advantage to use some of the geoarchaeological methods more often as a tool in the general archaeology toolbox.


When looking at the presentations of my fellow students, I think it is safe to say they equally enjoyed the course. All of them showed how the incorporation of geoarchaeology can contribute and broaden their own research interests and were in one way or another connected to their interests. Also, I have seldom seen a group of people looking at and touching completely mesmerized and fascinated some old as the hills wet clay ´, contemplating about how the texture and colour changes over time. This is passion as far as it gets without becoming obscene and I am glad I was a part of it. 9/10 recommend this Archon course!

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As an archaeologist, my personal relationship to soil did not go further than being able to say that excavating in a clay-area is annoying when it rains, excavating in a sandy area makes you get a natural body-scrub when it is windy and excavating where there is tuff makes you look like you have a nice tan (until you take a shower and realize it is just the dusty tuff…). However silly that may sound, it has always been obvious to me that the soils we dig are different. Nevertheless, as many archaeologists, I would focus more on the artefacts and not really pay attention to what secrets the soils may hold. But fear not! There is a solution: the ARCHON Geoarchaeology course at the VU, Amsterdam!


Day 1:

Navigating underground, ‘’modern art’’ and dirty dinnerImage and video hosting by TinyPic

The first day of the course began with a short lecture presented by Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving with a review of Quaternary Geology in the Netherlands. This is the geological period we are currently in, but which started more than 2.5 million years ago. The Quaternary period is separated into two epochs: the Pleistocene being the oldest, which is followed by the Holocene. During these times, the Netherlands would be totally unrecognizable: large areas were still covered with water, thick ice caps pushed upon the land and rivers were flowing differently. All of these processes have left traces in the landscape as we know it today, and you do not need to drill a hole in the ground to see some of these.

During the second part of the morning session we were navigating underground by looking over different maps of the Netherlands, which could be seen as a very accessible technique of geoarchaeological research. We studied the soil map and geomorphological map of (the region of) Amersfoort. On first glance, these maps look like a sheet of paper someone spilled many colors of paint over. However, studying them closely gave us some valuable information about what the landscape and soil in that region looks like and by relating the information on the map to each other, you can then go on and interpret why certain soils can be found in a certain location.

No, those are not modern art pieces, though I would not mind having one of these on the wall in my room. They are known as ‘lacquer peel’ and are an imprint of a soil. During this part of the course, we were tasked with describing such a lacquer peel in detail. It starts out by determining which are the different horizons, or layers, the soil is made of. The sediment in each layer is then described by means of elements such as color, texture, structure and the amount of organic material. Armed with that knowledge, you can determine the type of soil, which in this case is called a ‘podzol’.

The day ended with an exercise of describing soil samples that were taken in Scotland. It is a lot about determining colors and textures again (may all else fail, I can maybe think about a career as an interior designer). For describing colors, we used something called a Munsell-scale. Basically, this is a small book with different colored squares in it, which you then compare to the material in front of you. The real challenge starts when describing the texture… It involves a lot of feeling to determine when something is clay, silt or sand, or a combination of those. You want me to let you in on the secret? When you rub sand in your hand you will be able to feel the individual grains. Where silt and clay are involved you wet the material and then rub it in your hand. If the material stick to itself it is clay, and when it sticks to your hand it is silt. Just in case you were wondering: ‘wetting the material’ indeed means that I put it in my mouth…


Day 2: Archaeologists gone wild!

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Those who know an archaeologist are probably familiar with the situation: that time archaeologists go wild… Finally, after months of being locked inside, reading dusty books, and working on reports that seem to be endless, it is time for them to go wild and return to their natural habitat: the outside world!

On day 2 of the Geoarchaeology course eight students and two professors enter a tour bus headed for the Wekeromse Zand in the province of Gelderland. There was a general excitement to get outside and apply the techniques we learned during the first day, although there was also some napping while on the bus. Nevertheless, when we arrived at the Wekeromse Zand, everyone was ready to go. I was excited though a bit skeptical about whether I had enough knowledge to do it. However, as with many things, practice makes perfect.

The Wekeromse Zand is located in the High Netherlands (that part of the Netherlands that was formed during the Pleistocene). Here we took three coring samples. The first one was located on a dirt road next to a meadow. Here we found a relatively large horizon of dark brown material with pieces of plants, bricks and charcoal in them. This is called an anthrosol, which is a layer created by human interference. However, underneath this thick horizon, we found a podzol soil which used to be the original surface before the anthrosol was created. The second sample was taken in a more hilly landscape. Here the core sample came back with ‘just sand’ and no distinct layers were visible. Had we cored deeper, it would be very probable that we would have found a podzol soil underneath. This sand on top is drift sand, which has been moved by wind and deposited on the old podzol surface. The third coring was taken in a very open, sandy area. For this coring, there was also nothing but sand and no clear layers were visible in the sample. However, the sand was a different color from the material of the second sample. In fact, this last coring was taken in an area where, by means or erosion, the original podzol had been lost. We were therefore only sampling the Pleistocene sands.

We left the Wekeromse Zand and went on to Amstelveen in the Western Netherlands. As I mentioned before, the Wekeromse Zand was located in the High Netherlands, but Amstelveen is located in the Low Netherlands. This means that it used to be covered by the sea, and this also becomes apparent in the core sample. In total we cored to a depth of 10m below sea level, with which we broke record of 8.10m below sea level from last year’s Geoarchaeology course (try and beat that 2018 participants!). At this depth we mostly found clay with a lot of sea shell fragments in it that indicate sea level was present in the past. With this one coring we went back about 10.000 years in time. As an archaeologist I often tell people I feel like a time-traveler, but I never went back in time to 10.000 years ago!

Day 2 of the Geoarchaeology course allowed me to connect the information taught in the lecture to a ‘real-life’ experience. On a small side not, it turns out that when you are inexperienced and rather small, coring does not go that fast… So, thanks prof. Ian Simpson for helping us speeding up the work!


Day 3: Getting closer…

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After an extremely short night (more on that in a bit), the final day of the course started with a coffee and being lost at the VU campus… After wandering around for about 20 minutes we managed to find the correct classroom, where prof. Ian Simpson had already started on a short lecture about ‘thin section’. These are basically extremely thin slices of soil that you can observe under a microscope to get more information about the specific elements that the soil contain. We looked at the thin sections of three different sites in Scotland, each from a different time period: Late Neolithic/Bronze Age, Iron Age and Medieval.

The thin sections were all taken from an anthrosol – a layer in the soil created by human interference. With this exercise we attempted to understand the transition of anthrosols. For my untrained eye it was relatively difficult to determine what the different colors and structures in the thin sections meant. As prof. Ian Simpson said: ‘’Welcome to a new language’’. In the thin sections we were looking for a lot of different elements, such as: the microstructure, the coarse mineral material, the fine mineral material, organic material and possible anthropic inclusions. It is a bit overwhelming, the amount of information that is stored in such a thin slice of earth.  

We saw that the material from the Late Neolithic/Bronze Age site contained kitchen waste material, such as charcoal and bone fragments. In the sample from the Iron Age site we saw some remains of animal manure in addition to the kitchen waste material, which is an indication that the anthrosol changed. The thin section from the medieval period showed a change again, where the kitchen waste material was mostly absent and more animal manure components were visible.

After the microscope practicum all the students of the course gave a short presentation about a geoarchaeological topic. This is why the previous night had been so short for me… I was really struggling to come up with a topic that would fit with my research, but that also fit with geoarchaeology. In my thesis I am working with public archaeology and how archaeology is perceived in contemporary society. This does not really match with soil horizons or thin sections. Nonetheless, with the help of dr. Sjoerd Kluiving and prof. Ian Simpson, I settled on the theme of identity. This is also what I want to look at in my research report: how soil can influence identity of people nowadays and why this is very apparent in some regions, while not in others.

After the student presentations we had a short evaluation of the course and then went for a drink in a nearby restaurant. Before I knew, we had to get back to the car and drive back to Groningen. Overall, I am quite happy I participated in the course, though I would have wished I had known these techniques earlier on in my studies. Now I am towards the end of my studies, it is less likely I can apply the techniques to my own research. Nevertheless, the ARCHON Geoarchaeology course: I am digging it!

Dig this! A reflection on three days of geoarchaeology 


Three days of an intensive goarchaeology course does something to a human being. One is altered in a way that one can never look at the landscape again with a mind that is blank, naïve, oblivious. Landscape, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. I feel like a novice hunter that has been taught how to see, and to pick up signals so that the landscape reveals a layer of itself that I have not layed eyes on before (see Ingold, 2000). Whether this change inside me and my fellow students is for the better, I could not tell you.


One has to see a sol to know a sol

Everything has a context. In the case of archaeology, the space-time continuum (FitzPatrick, 1983) of soil gives context to what we find, or what we don’t find. Archaeology will always have a soil and sediment record surrounding it which is like a story of what happened in the past. If someone walks the soil, ploughs it, manures it, or digs it: it affects the underlying soils and sediments. Archaeologists try to read this thick book through an extensive set of tools. Describing features like color, texture, structure, organic contents, and the nature of the lower transition from one soil horizont to another, are a prerequisite for a geo-scientific approach to understanding soils and sediments. The landscape can be understood subsequently, but understanding has to be built op by describing before combining soil features to an analytical conclusion.


However, before one can describe a soil, one has to see a soil. One can see a soil profile in the form of a lacquer peel, and one can see a soil in real life. Both could be done in this course and both leave different impressions on novice hunters or on, of course, me and my fellow students. On day 1 of this geoarchaeology course we got confronted with an extensive range of laquer peels that didn’t smell or didn’t taste quite as good as, we discovered the next day, real life soils, but anyways could be described for different abovementioned soil features. Me and my partner-in-crime hit checkpot directly because we were describing a so-called ‘Vaaggrond’ (if directly translated to English a ‘vague soil’, which mostly leaves the layman with utter confusion) (Fig. 1). Following is an account of the process of describing the soil and its features (Fig. 2). I will go more deeply into the features that I found particularly interesting and will only mention the others briefly.


Fig.  1. Our Vaaggrond: you can see the greyish and brownish colors and limited soil formation.














Fig. 2. The description of the soil features.




Firstly we drew the soil profile and divided it into several ‘layers’ that we could distinguish (or at least we thought so), and ended up with 15 layers which we later refrained to only 4 distinct soil horizonts. We described the color through comparement with the Munsell color chart and discovered that most colors in our profile were shades of greyish brown or brownish grey. Mostly the top layer(s) were browner and darker and the following layers lighter with more grey. These colors can give indications of drainage, leaching of the soil, and organic components and are thus very useful. Next thing to describe is the texture of the soil: how fine or coarse is it ranging from silt to gravel? This gives indications regarding the depositional process, fertility of the soil, and drainage possibilities. I found our profile particularly interesting for this feature because we had a so-called ‘fining upward sequence’. Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving explained to me and my partner that we had an alluvial deposit for which the rivers ‘stroomdraad’ changed over time.  Later, we evaluated the texture which can tell us for example about the presence of clay or silt. Following this, the organic compound of the soil is described. This is of interest because it can give an indiciation of vegetation. Next we described the presence of iron oxide, clay skins, and the nature of the boundary between one horizont and the next.

            Now came the part we highly awaited: the final analysis in which I could finally make conclusions and check my skills in pattern recogniton. With some illuviation of knowledge from prof. Ian Simpson and Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving into the brains of me and my partner, we could conclude that our soil showed evidence of a plowed Anthrosol, an illuviated plowed Anthrosol, followed by an illuviated sol, and finishing it off with a thick layer of parent material. Translating these horizonts we came to our Final Judgement: a Vaaggrond. A Vaaggrond – which has no literal translation in the World Reference Base for Soil Resources but can either be classified as an Arenosol or a Regosol, depended upon texture – is a soil that hasn’t developed clear horizonts, which is mostly due to the young age of the soil.


Real life soils going wild!

A fieldtrip of any kind brings joy to the hearts of archaeologists. Even more so if a friendly busdriver makes sure everyone stays safe by giving you a firm hand around your underarm by every disembarkment. Even more so if one is to get dirty. And even more so if one sees fellow students getting dirty while observing in amusement. I would happily write about the social and soily dynamics but I will contain myself as I am not an anthropologist but an archaeologist. Armed with gouges, cores (an ‘Edelmanboor’ in our case), gouge knives, tapelines, paper and pencil, Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving and prof. Ian Simpson showed us the places of interest for the second day of the course. Coring we went through 4 observation points near and on the Wekeromse Zand, culling a Vaaggrond, a Micropodzol, a Podzol, and a Carbic Podzol. Unable to control our soil rage, subsequently we gouged at 2 observation points in Amstelveen. Two Gleysols were slaughtered that afternoon.  

            The Gleysols in particular left most students in amazement because of the endless layers of peat and clay. Especially when we were told that each 1 meter of sediment approximates a 1000 years of sedimentation: how could our young brains ever comprehend this magic? At the second observation point in Amstelveen we already had to physically descend to around 4 to 5 meters below NAP (Normaal Amsterdams Peil, describing the average sea level - originally calibrated to the geoid). We gouged (Fig. 3) out firstly a disturbed layer of around 20 centimeters, whereafter only about 50 centimeters of peat. This was not surprising because the rest of the peat has already been removed to be used as fuel in earlier times (remember our descend to around 4 to 5 meters below NAP?). Subsequently we came into endless layers of clay; blueish clay, sandy clay, greish clay, compact clay, and shelly clay. This went on for about 5 meters before Dr. Sjoerd Kluiving and Prof. Ian Simpson decided this was enough. Dr. Sjoerd must have seen the bewildered faces of me and my fellow students because he explained:


            The peat that formed developed in a closed habitat, which is an indication of the closed circumstances of the coast because of shore formations. This peat is lying on top of this very open marine system, where shells could live and people couldn’t. On one point below this there would be a based peat layer, which developed because of   rising ground water tables which in turn were due to rising sea levels. Only later the Netherlands would actually flood because of the sea level rise. Below this based peat layer there would be a layer of Pleistocene substrate. This could have been river deposits or a sandy soil, or there is even the possibility of a podzol having developed   there. This was possible because before the Pleistocene substrate became flooded by the sea, this soil had thousands of years to develop and to form horizonts. Even hunter-gatherers could have lived on this surface.


 Fig. 3. Endless layers of clay in our gouge at the second observation point in Amstelveen. 

Thin sections of rubbish

Looking through a microscope is always fun. Actually it doesn’t really matter what you are looking at because the colors and shapes under different lights are beautiful anyways. However, I have to admit that knowing that the multi-colored slide you are looking at is kitchen-waste makes you think slightly different about rubbish. At the third and last day of our geoarchaeology course we got confronted with thin section micromorphology. In micromorphology it’s possible to take a closer look at the stratigraphy and is an analysis of the undisturbed soil and sediments under the microscope. It gives insight into how the soil and sediments are organised, which gives clues about how the soil is related to each other and thus formed. My first moments behind the microscope made me feel mentally disoriented (not the first time I experienced that mental state in the last couple of days), but prof. Ian Simpson came to our rescue with examples and explanations. We managed (I say ‘we’ and not ‘I’ because prof. Ian Simpson rescued me many times) to partly untangle 1 thin section – from an agricultural layer at Tofts Ness, Sanday – which I will briefly describe in the following alinea.

            In the thin section from Tofts Ness (Fig. 4) we could discover a microstructure of chambers. The related distribution, which explains the relationship between coarse and fine material was porphyric with a coarse/fine ratio of 30/70. Porphyric means that the coarse and fine material is totally mixed with each other. Of the coarse mineral material that was present, quartz was very frequent, sandstone was only present in traces, and clacareous sands only in small amounts. This coarse material was moderately sorted, which means that it was not all of the same size, but also didn’t show big size differences. Regarding the fine mineral material, this thin section dominantly showed organic material, very few rubified material, and a speckled and random B-fabric. Linear patterns of the B-fabric could indicate an agricultural layer, but in this thin section there didn’t seem to be a particular organisation to it. Futhermore, we saw shell fragments, bone fragments, and fungal spores (Fig. 5).



Fig. 5. Micromorphology in the thin section from Tofts Ness. A: a shell fragment under cross polarized light. B: a bone fragment under polarized light. C: the same bone fragment under crossed polarized light. D: fungal spore under polarized light.


Fig.   4. Thin section from Tofts Ness.

Prof. Ian Simpson explained to us that the thin section of Tofts Ness gave us a look into a kitchen-waste layer that is used to mend with the soil. The soil predominantly existed out of wind-blown calcareous sands which was freely drained. People tried to farm in the area and it was a difficult environment to work with. Mending kitchen-waste with soil gave it the opportunity to be cultivated. This was an interesting insight and made me think about what ‘rubbish’ or ‘waste’ actually means in a world where maybe everything gets a second purpose.


Of blank minds and stuffed brains: geoarchaeology ain’t bringing sand to the beach

All in all I have to say that this course changed the way in how I look at landscape. Whether I like to have a blank mind when I look at the landscape surrounding me or one stuffed with questions and theories depends a bit on the day. From experience I can tell you however: one does not simply switch the geoarchaeology switch off! A couple of days have passed and my mind is still not back to normal yet…

            - No longer is this a ‘just whatever augmentation’ in the Dutch landscape. This, before, uninteresting augmentation has changed into a push moraine; a relic from the second last ice age during which big icecaps smoothed along the Dutch landscape, pushing softer sediments like river deposits into hillish features. During the last ice age wind-borne cover sands were deposited on top of this push moraine, for then this part of the landscape was a vast polar desert. After that, finer sands like driftsand could be deposited. Then, during the Middle Ages or later, humans found ingenuitive ways to fertilize this sterile soil. They augmented the push moraine even more through depositing heath sods mingled with dung from livestock. These and later generations plowed the soil and precipitation drained through it to leach minerals and organic matter from the topsoil into earlier deposits, like the cover sand. I have learned that this cover sand lost its clean color when approaching the layer of plaggen; now being a darker …... Down, brain! Down! … Good girl. -


            I did learn a lot, and the course also gave me insight in how I could use geoarchaeology for my own research (which mostly revolves around reindeer and circumpolar communities – what about reconstructing migratory patterns of domesticated reindeer through different properties of soil and its stratigraphy?). Knowledge can definitely be a burden, but it does open ones eyes for sure.





FitzPatrick, E.A., 1983. Soils. Their formation, classification and distribution. Longman: London.


Ingold, T., 2000. The perception of the environment: Essays on livelihood, dwelling, and skill. Routledge: London.