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Soils of the Past: An Introduction to Palaeopedology (Third Edition)

Soils of the past coverThe word “Palaeopedology”, the study of ancient soils, comes from the Greek word for “ground” and not the Latin word for “pedestrians”, which is appropriate for this subject because it is anything but pedestrian.  The book, and the field itself, have come a long way since the “labour of love” that was the first edition in 1989, in the infancy of the research into this fascinating topic.  Ideas and concepts have since been applied from soils of the past to the landscapes encountered during the exploration of Mars and to new discoveries of fossil soils from the Precambrian, presenting us with new information on weathering in the early solar system, and research and studies into fossil soils have advanced our understanding of global climate change.

The book, acknowledging the huge journey its subject has made, states: “This third edition can finally be regarded as a textbook for the established field of palaeopedology”.  And although it is just such a textbook, it is so much more besides. 

It is a comprehensive volume, with clear and accessible narrative, usefully illustrated and with a decent use of tables, covering every relevant aspect of soils and fossil soils imaginable.  And with its 20 pages of encyclopaedic glossary, 85 pages of references (which capture everything ever written about fossil soils worth knowing), and a similarly thorough index, it is indeed an excellent reference text which is easy to search. 

As an engineering geologist, for the most part, I find that soil is something to be scraped out of the way, so I was fascinated to spend some time considering soil forming processes, how soils are altered after burial, and (usefully) how to spot a paleosol in the sedimentary record.  I will never look in the same way again at that seemingly ordinary-looking grey shale in a rock core section with fossil root traces: It was once a soil, and paleoenvironmental reconstruction can be undertaken based on a huge amount of data just taken from the roots.  The chapter on “Soils of other worlds” gives “clues to conditions during the first 700 million years or so of Earth history unrecorded in sedimentary rocks” and is a rich vein of food for thought. 

This marvellous reference is much more than a text book for students of the subject.  It both presents, and is part of, the history of the study of palaeopedology itself.

SOILS OF THE PAST: AN INTRODUCTION TO PALAEOPEDOLOGY (THIRD EDITION) By GREGORY J. RETALLACK, 2019 Published by: John Wiley and Sons Ltd 225pp (pbk) ISBN: 978-1-119-53040-4 List Price £69.95