Many sediments contain a wealth of environmental archaeological information. These are vital to the understanding of the past environment (palaeoenvironment), diet, living conditions, and agricultural or industrial economy (palaeoeconomy). We divide the science into the following disciplines:
Geoarchaeology is concerned with understanding the sedimentary and soil formation history of a site and the processes that led to its development. It enables us to ask important questions such as:
- What was the nature of the depositional environment and how did it vary across the site?
- Were there any changes in the depositional environment over time?
- Does the site have good potential for recovering archaeological remains, and if so where?
- Is there evidence for human exploitation of stone, mineral, soil and sediment, resources?
Field-based geoarchaeological techniques
Our highly skilled team specialise in designing and implementing strategies to better understand the sub-surface deposits of your site (their nature, depth and thickness), the formation processes and depositional environment. To retrieve deeply buried sediments and soils we are able to organise manual or mechanical borehole surveys. We also monitor geotechnical-drilling units, from which in the right circumstances we can retrieve samples suitable for laboratory-based investigation. For conventional sampling we have peat corers, column, bulk and Kubiena sampling, all suitable for subsequent laboratory assessment and analysis.
Laboratory-based geoarchaeological techniques
Our sedimentology and soil science laboratories enable us to undertake detailed sediment description, soil micromorphology, particle size analysis, peat humification and organic matter determinations. Description of the physical and chemical properties of the sub surface soils and sediments allow us to reconstruct past landscapes and environments. With this information we can create deposit models using specialist geological and GIS software, which can be fully integrated with archaeological, palaeoenvironmental and palaeoeconomic records.
Deposit modelling is a term used for the production of 2-Dimensional and 3-Dimensional maps of the surface and thickness of stratigraphic units beneath a site. Such maps can be used as a tool to aid to in the reconstruct of former landscapes and/or to determine the best locations for archaeological/environmental archaeological investigation. Geoarchaeological investigation in the Lower Thames Valley since 1996 for example, has enabled us to develop a high-resolution model of the floodplain landscape which aids in the detection of thick sedimentary sequences and evidence for human activity. This information is shared with our clients to provide the best possible outcome for their work.
Our specialists can utilise newly obtained geoarchaeological records and historic geological, sedimentological, pedological and hydrological data derived from BGS records, geotechnical reports, and archives held by public and private organisations to create these models. As such, it is a tool that can be used prior and/or post fieldwork, assuming sufficient data exists.
In order to maximise our understanding of a site, it is vital to have dated deposits. This enables us to pinpoint when important identified events occur, such as changes in the landscape, vegetation and evidence of human activity.
Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils, and sediments using signatures inherent in the rocks themselves. A wide variety of geochronological tools or methods can be employed to estimate quantitative and qualitative dating of rocks and sediments. Techniques exist to date all geological materials, from billions of years to historical records.
We have geochronology laboratories offering Tephrochronology facilities, and strong links with external Radiocarbon, Lead (210Pb), Uranium series (U-series), Optical Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and Thermo Luminescence (TL) dating. U-series dating is the most reliable method for dating Quaternary (the last 2 million years) sedimentary carbonate, silica, and fossil material. Radiocarbon dating (14C) dates material with organic carbon, and has a maximum range of 100,000 years. Thermoluminescence (T-L dating) provides ages within a range of 100-800,000 years. Lead 210 (210Pb) has a short half-life, and dates material from the past 150-200 years.
Where appropriate, single or multi-method dated sedimentary sequences are created to compile age-depth and time sliced models, enabling age related visualisation of long-term processes and single events, and assisting in the determination of targeted dating programs to address specific age related archaeological problems.
The fields of archaeobotany / palaeobotany and zooarchaeology / palaeozoology involves the analysis of fossil plant and animal remains from geological / archaeological features to reconstruct the vegetation history (palaeoenvironment), and human diet/economy (palaeoeconomy). It enables us to ask important questions such as:
- What plants grew in the nearby environment?
- How did the vegetation change over time?
- Was arable / pastoral farming taking place in the local environment?
- How large was the impact of human activity on the vegetation cover?
- Was woodland management being practiced?
- What plants were used by the site's inhabitants for construction, food, textiles, medicine diet and fuel?
- What animals existed naturally in the local environment?
- What animals were farmed in the local environment?
- Were there fish in the river and were they being farmed?
We have a fantastic suite of Palaeoecological laboratories for the extraction, assessment and analysis of pollen, diatoms, insects, waterlogged wood and seeds, charcoal and charred seeds, insects, animal bone, Ostracoda and Foraminifera, Mollusca, phytoliths, fungal spores and testate amoebae. To learn more about what some of these techniques specifically tell us, please visit our Behind the Science page.
Geochemical techniques can provide invaluable information, which cannot be retrieved by conventional archaeological or archaeological science techniques. Such techniques have the potential to provide information in the following areas:
- Identifying potential areas of human activity on site
- Identifying the function of unknown features on/off site
- Identifying the function of artefacts
We can carry out a wide range of organic and inorganic geochemical techniques. If you have an archaeological quandary that you think might be solved by geochemical analysis, please contact us to discuss possible solutions.
+44 (0) 118 378 8941
+44 (0) 7734 530 438
+44 (0) 118 378 8853
+44 (0) 7713 088 568
School of Archaeology, Geography and Environmental Science (SAGES)
The University of Reading
PO Box 227
RG6 6AB, UK