SAS Bulletin
Volume 19 Number 1/2 January /June 1996

Book Reviews

Soils in Archaeology: Landscape Evolution and Human Occupation. Vance T. Holliday (ed.). Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, 1993. 272 pp. $16.95 (paper).

Reviewed by William D. Middleton, Department of Anthropology, Laboratory for Archaeological Chemistry, University of Wisconsin, Madison WI, 53706

Vance Holliday's edited volume joins the small corpus of works dedicated to various archaeological applications of soil science (e.g. Cornwall 1958; Courty et al. 1989; Groenman-van Waateringe and Robinson 1988; Keeley and Macphail 1981; Limbrey 1975). As such, it ranks as an important contribution to this small but growing body of literature, although it would still be an important addition even if the literature were more extensive. The work is the proceedings of the first Annual Fryxell Symposium held at the Society for American Archaeology meeting in Phoenix, Arizona in April 1988.

The sub-title, "Landscape Evolution and Human Occupation," is slightly misleading. With the exception of Stein's contribution (discussed below), the contributions concentrate almost exclusively on landscape evolution (geomorphology). Human occupation enters into the contributions more as occupation on an evolving landscape and the implications of geomorphological processes for archaeology than as site-based archaeological soil analysis as an adjunct to behavioral interpretation (e.g. Barba and Ortiz 1992; Heidenreich and Konrad 1973; Manzanilla and Barba 1990). The title implies a broader orientation than it actually presents, which may disappoint some readers: the reviewer has recently noted a comment on an Internet discussion group expressing disappointment that the work was so heavily geomorphologically oriented. While this is not really a flaw, it does point to the need for a broader consideration in the near future.

The book is emphatically not a handbook or manual, but neither is it merely a collection of case studies. Rather, each contribution considers a specific issue or approach and its implications for archaeology with illustrative case studies. Issues considered include geomorphological factors affecting site formation and location, the integration of geomorphological studies with regional (site) survey, the use of soil chronosequences in dating sites, paleoecological reconstruction, anthropogenic and natural organic matter in soil formation, and the effects of agricultural terracing on soil formation.

The work comprises eight articles: "Alluvial Pedology and Geoarchaeological Research" by C. Reid Ferring; "Soils and Holocene Landscape Evolution in central and Southwestern Kansas: Implications for Archaeological Research" by Rolfe D. Mandel; "Soil Formation, Time, and Archaeology" by Vance T. Holliday; "Soil Morphological Properties and Weathering Zone Characteristics as Age Indicators in Holocene Alluvium in the Upper Midwest" by E. Arthur Bettis III; "Micromorphology, Soils, and Archaeological Sites" by Paul Goldberg; "Soil Properties of Sediments in Wadi Feiran, Sinai: A Geoarchaeological Interpretation" by Bruce G. Gladfelter; "Organic Matter in Archaeological Contexts" by Julie K. Stein; "Long-term Effects of Prehistoric Agriculture on Soils: Examples from New Mexico and Peru" by Jonathan A. Sandor; and a very useful glossary by Holliday and Goldberg. It is well written, illustrated, and edited. The authors employ a variety of technical and methodological approaches in their contributions, but for the most part these are not discussed in detail. Each article, however, is well referenced, so the interested reader can easily pursue more information on a particular approach.

The first six contributions focus on pedologic and geomorphic aspects of landscape (and site) formation and their contingent ramifications for archaeological interpretation. A recurrent theme is the lack of precision in the archaeological use of the terms "soil" and "sediment" (also very well covered in Stein's contribution), and the confusion resulting from their imprecise use. To briefly summarize, in pedological terminology a sediment is a particulate matter deposited by some agency (wind, water, etc.) and a soil is the weathered product of a sediment. A key point, well made by Ferring, Holliday, and Gladfelter, is that a soil can only develop on a stable land-surface because soil formation takes time; sedimentation on the other hand can occur at any rate. A soil, therefore, always indicates a stable land surface, but the absence of a soil does not, conversely, indicate that there was no land surface. Failure to clearly distinguish between the two can greatly complicate the interpretation of stratigraphic and chronological sequences.

As Ferring, Holliday, and Gladfelter point out, artifacts at a single component site can be vertically dispersed with little evidence of stratification if there is continuous sedimentation, while artifacts at a multi-component site can all be superimposed on the same surface if there is a period of extended landscape stability. The ability to recognize the depositional environment is extremely i mportant in either case.

An important, related point is that various surfaces within a landscape can be of different ages as the result of differential action by geomorphic forces (erosion, sedimentation, glaciation, etc.). Both Mandell and Bettis discuss the implications for regional site survey: whole stretches of prehistory may be out of reach to anything but accidental discovery because the contemporary land surface has been buried beneath more recent sediments or soils or has been eroded. Regional surveys must take this into account when interpreting their results. Once they have been correlated, however, different soils (both buried and surface) can be used to date sites, predict their location, and identify areas where surface survey will be unprofitable.

Goldberg discusses the use of soil micromorphology in distinguishing between various geomorphic and pedogenic processes impacting site formation. These range from identifying sources of sedimentary material, to distinguishing between soils, sediments, and anthropogenic features. An understanding of these factors is extremely important for interpreting stratigraphic relationships and determining the integrity of deposits.

Each of the final two contributions stands somewhat apart from the preceding six. Stein presents an excellent discussion of organic matter in archaeological sites. In addition to mechanisms of accumulation and degradation of organic matter, she offers a very clear discussion of the distinction between sedimentary and pedogenic organic matter and between soil and sediment. Sandor reviews the effects of agricultural terracing on pedogenesis and demonstrates how pedological investigations can aid in the interpretation of these features.

Taken together, this collection presents a very good picture of the geomorphology side of geoarchaeology. Given the scope of its title, though, it is unfortunate that the contributions were not more diverse. The issues covered, however, are significant. It is the reviewer's impression that many of these issues are not widely appreciated by many archaeologists, and for this reason the book is especially important. Most archaeologists would profit by reading it, especially the contributions by Ferring, Holliday, Goldberg, and Stein.


Barba, L.A. & A. Ortiz
1992 Analisis quimico de pisos de occupacion: un caso etnografico en Tlaxcala, Mexico. Latin American Antiquity 3(1):63 82.

Cornwall, I.W. 1958 Soils for the Archaeologist. London: Phoenix House.

Courty, M.A., P. Goldberg and R. Macphail
1989 Soils and Micromorphology in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Groenman-van Waateringe, W., & M. Robinson
1988 Man Made Soils. BAR International Series 410. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports.

Heidenreich, C.E., & V.A. Konrad
1973 Soil analysis at the Robataille Site part II: a method useful in determining the location of longhouse patterns. Ontario Archaeology 21:33 62.

Keeley, H.C.M., & R. Macphail
1981 A Soil Handbook for Archaeologists. London: University of London.

Limbrey, S.
1975 Soil Science in Archaeology. London: Academic Press.

Manzanilla, L. & L. Barba
1990 The study of activities in Classic households: two cases from Coba and Teotihuacan. Ancient Mesoamerica 1:41 49.

Back to the Society for Archaeological Sciences