This browser is not fully supported by Historic England. Please update your browser to the latest version so that you get the best from our website.

Geoarchaeology

Geoarchaeology is the use of earth sciences to understand the archaeological record. It is a branch of archaeological science involving the study of stratigraphy, sites and landscapes with techniques from soil science, sedimentology and geology.

Methods include micromorphology, heavy minerals and particle size analysis. This page describes geoarchaeological activities, expertise and research carried out by Historic England.

SEM and polarised light images of ash crystals
Electron microscope and polarised light images of ash crystals © Matthew Canti

Activities

  • Responsible for Historic England policy on geoarchaeology
  • Offering advice, including vetting geoarchaeology in all projects funded by Historic England
  • Carrying out practical geoarchaeology on a number of Historic England sites. These use micromorphology and related microscopy, as well as regularly involving particle size analysis, heavy mineral analysis, various forms of SEM analysis, X ray diffraction etc
  • Producing extensive research publications on aspects of micromorphology and related microscopy, as well as guidance documents or site-based publications involving other earth science techniques

SEM images of earthworm granules
Electron microscope images of earthworm granules © Matthew Canti

Resources

Scientific resources available in the laboratory at Fort Cumberland:

  • Polarised light microscopy is the main method used for soil micromorphology
  • Reflected light microscopy is used for general identification of materials
  • Particle size analysis is used to determine the texture of a soil or sediment
  • Heavy mineral analysis identifies the dense minerals in a soil or sediment
  • Thin section reference collection contains numerous known materials as they would appear if found in soil thin sections

Research

Use of earthworm calcite granules for radiocarbon dating of stratigraphy

Earthworm granules are aggregates of microscopic calcite produced regularly by worms. They are around 12% carbon, which gives a radiocarbon date the same as the date that the earthworm was living.

Publications

  • Canti, MG, 'Deposition and taphonomy of earthworm granules in relation to their interpretative potential in Quaternary stratigraphy', Journal of Quaternary Science 22 (2007) , 111-118
  • Canti, MG, 'Origin of calcium carbonate granules found in buried soils and Quaternary deposits', Boreas 2 7(1998), 275-288

Calcium carbonate faecal spherulites

Faecal spherulites are produced in the gut of a number of animals, and are a useful archaeological indicator of the past presence of herbivores.

Publications

  • Canti, MG, 'The production and preservation of faecal spherulites: animals, environment and taphonomy', Journal of Archaeological Science 26 (1999), 251-258
  • Canti, MG, 'An investigation into microscopic calcareous spherulites from herbivore dungs', Journal of Archaeological Science 24 (1997), 219-231

Ash formation

The crystals make up the white portion of plant ash and are formed of calcium carbonate derived from the calcium oxalate crystals in plants.

Publications

  • Canti, MG, 'Ash geoarchaeology' in Smith, C (ed) Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology (Springer Reference 2014) 539-545 [accessed 13 February 2015]
  • Canti, MG, 'Aspects of the chemical and microscopic characteristics of plant ashes found in archaeological soils', Catena 54 (2003), 339-361

SEM and polarised light images of faecal spherulites
Electron microscope and polarized light images of calcium carbonate faecal spherulites

Who we are

Historic England geoarchaeologist Matthew Canti works within the environmental studies team.

Matt is Associate editor of the Journal of Archaeological Science and sub editor for Environmental Archaeology.

Was this page helpful?

Contact

Matthew Canti

Senior Geoarchaeologist

Heritage Protection: Intervention & Analysis

Fort Cumberland,
Fort Cumberland Road,
Portsmouth,
Hampshire,
P04 9LD

View on map

Also of interest...