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Archaeological Soil and Sediment Micromorphology

srtuAs witnessed by the work of Henry Sorby, a Sheffield ironmaster of independent means and a past-President of the Geological Society, the petrographic microscope was first used in geology in the 19th Century, revolutionizing petrography. By the 1930s the instrument was being applied by soil scientists to large, resin-impregnated thin-sections of samples from soil horizons.  Again, by the late 1950s and 1960s archaeologists were beginning to apply the petrographic microscope to archaeological deposits, but it was not until the 1970s that such work became at all widespread and systematic. 

The new discipline was called micromorphology.  It embraced the identification and evaluation of archaeological materials, the elucidation ancient technologies, and the understanding of archeological contexts and human impacts.  The petrographic microscope remains central to these endeavours, but is now supplemented and expanded by a great variety of microscopic and instrumental techniques.

Central to micromorphology are natural materials, artefacts, and ecofacts.  The most important natural materials are mineral grains, fragments of rock, coal, soils, soil spherulites, and biospheroids.  Amongst the artefacts found in thin-section are fragments of worked stone, slags and metal-working debris, pottery, brick, earth construction materials, plasters and mortars.  A great diversity of ecofacts are encountered: bones, teeth, fish scales, molluscan shells, microfossils, plant remains, seeds, dungs, parasite ova, charcoal, and ash.  Most of these materials can be modified by fire, which may have been either natural or human in origin.

Work with these materials allow many central questions to be tackled, for example, the use of space (e.g. hearths, seasonal reflooring/replastering), location of routeways, the whereabouts and character of animal gathering enclosures, the effects of different agricultural methods (agricultural soils, dark earths), and activities in rock-sheltes and caves.

Composed of 44 detailed papers by 52 mainly European authors, Nicosia and Stoops’ Archaeological Soil  and Sediment Micromorphology is an impressive and appealing handbook and sourcebook on the materials, problems, techniques, achievement, and prospects of the subject.  It is a pleasure to handle, with its large, double-column format, copious photomicrographs of the highest quality, and comprehensive reference lists.  The subject clearly goes from strength to strength but, as the Editors are at pains to point out, is held back by the poor or non-existent background in geology possessed by many micromorphologists, a clear weakness, for example,  British archaeological education.

Reviewed by John R L Allen

ARCHAEOLOGICAL SOIL AND SEDIMENT MICROMORPHOLOGY by C. NICOSIA and G. STOOPS (Eds., 2017. Published by Wiley Blackwell, i-xix, 476 pp. (hdb), ISBN 9781118941058, List Price: £100.  E-book £90.99.  W: