Day 5………..

November 13, 2009

Today was the 5th and last day of the Training Week of the Archaeological Soil Micromorphology course I have been taking. It has been extremely tiresome and a bit stress inducing at times but extremely worthwhile.

As an aside, I realized that some of you may have no idea what a micromorphology thin section looks like. There is an incredible range of variation but one example can be found on the wesbite for the joint Turkish/American project at Üçagizli Cave, Turkey. If you scroll down the page you will see the sample still in the profile followed by the thin section after processing.

Back to today’s update:

The structure of today’s work was a perfect way to end the course. The morning was a lecture on the micromorphological signatures of medieval structures and how to identify workshop areas or other industrial processes. As per usual this was followed by a few hours perusing the relevant reference collection. This was the last major topic for the course, the afternoon session swung back full-circle and re-addressed the systematic nature of describing thin secctions and the necessity of proper data presentation. Rather than continue browsing slides following the reminder we were all given an hour to systematically describe a thin section of our choice, make some form of educated interpretation, then present it to the class. This was intimidating. Not only because 4 days ago I knew next to nothing about the topic but also because we were told it takes an experienced micromorphologist roughly a half day to fully examine, describe, document, and make an interpretation for one slide. Regardless, this was our excercise and we went ahead and put together our descriptions then presented them.

My slide was from a Saxon occupation and the description, the short version, went something like this:

Homogenous thin section with numerous inclusions. Weakly separated granular microstructure with unaccommodating peds, massive intrapedal microstructure. The ratio of course and fine fractions (c:f) is 2:3 and the c:f related distribution is single-spaced equal enaulic…(There is a bit about the coarse fraction mineral content, coarse organics, and the fine fraction in detail but I will spare it here)…Large plaster/mortar floor fragment in upper section, smaller rounded and iron stained mortar/plaster fragments in lower section, small accumulation of mm-sized iron slag fragments in middle portion, and frequent iron staining/mottling throughout section. This represents a mixed deposit with evidence of occupation floors, potentially redeposited and significant post-depositional movement of iron.

That is a quick overview of the description I did. A little simplistic but not too bad for my first time. I need to brush up on my abilities to identify minerals and rock types but I was happy. You’ll notice it contains a whole bunch of fancy speak, but it’s necessary to maintain consistency and comparability in the description of thin sections. All the terms above have strictly defined definitions that include quantitative estimations (see Stoops 2003). This type of stuff is for data tables and databases, not necessarily all of the nitty-gritty goes into the final publication, unless it is a monograph, report, or something similar.

And that’s that….except for the hours and hours I still need to spend looking at reference collections and analyzing my own thin sections. A great week! Now it is time to sleep.


Stoops, G. 2003. Guidelines for Analysis and Description of Soil and Regolith Thin Sections. Soil Science Society  of America, Inc., Madison,Wisconsin.

Parc Safari Update

November 12, 2009

Wanted to update you all on the Parc Safari work that has been going on. The students have written a number of great posts that overview some key aspects of this year’s work. Check it out here.

Day 4…Microscope Eyes

November 12, 2009

Today was much like the past few days. My approach to learning Soil Micromorphology has been working so I stuck with it. I did make one minor modification though. Rather than pair slides with their relevant publication and go over the identified characteristics, I pulled out one of the best guides to Archaeological Soil Micromorphology, Soil and Micromorphology in Archaeology by Courty et al. 1989, and went through the major concepts while trying to locate evidence for each one in a number of slides. It was a bit frustrating but overall it went well. Not really the best approach unless you have slides that have already been analyzed and are supposed to have these features but it worked for me today and I recommend it.

The best part of this course is the enormous reference collection of thin sections that is at our disposal. After each topic is introduced, remember the two lectures a day program followed by hours of examining slides, we are introduced to another set of thin sections relevant to the topic. That means every half of day the slides we can look at grows and grows. Now that I am feeling a bit more confident in my approach to soil micromorphology I have realized just how valuable this experience truly is. The only unfortunate part is I wish I had more time to look through all of these things and really thoroughly study each topic in detail. A week doesn’t really lend itself to that however.

Today we were introduced to two more topics. We shifted into more rural habitation and looked at occupation surfaces, such things as constructed living floors like plaster, mortar, daub. This was the morning. In the afternoon we were treated to a lecture on the vague term Dark Earth. This type of sediment dates to the post-Roman period and is related to urban deposits that have been the medium in which soil has formed. As per the name it is very dark and visually diagnostic, often producing an extremely homogenized deposit. I won’t go into to too much detail but take a look at Dr Richard Macphail’s work if you’re interested in learning more. It is an extremely ubiquitous sediment type in London in particular and is an amazing example of how soil micromorphology can be applied to archaeological questions.

In addition to all this my eyes have begun to revolt to excessive use of a microscope. It may have something to do with a lack of sleep but I don’t have that luxury for another day so I am going to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Back tomorrow with Day 5 update, the final day of the training week.

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