Approaches to assessing anthropogenic soil-landscape change in ancient agricultural systems

Author(s): Jeffrey Homburg; Jonathan Sandor

Year: 2015


Farming alters and can wholly transform landscapes and soil properties, through both deliberate management and unintentional trajectories. The archaeological record of agriculture holds important long-term evidence about land management and change relevant to archaeology and current agriculture. Quantitative assessments of soil change in ancient fields are relatively few because of methodological challenges, soil’s dynamic nature, and post-agricultural imprints of environmental change and land use. This paper discusses approaches to measuring and interpreting soil change through examples, identifies potentials and pitfalls, and considers new methods. Evaluating soil change requires baseline reference data. Inferring soil change is commonly based on a "space-for-time substitution" method in which agricultural soils are compared with uncultivated reference soils in similar geomorphic and pedogenic settings. Because soils are dynamic, reference soils do not represent original soils, but rather what cultivated soils would be like now had they not been farmed. Another way to detect soil change is to identify anthropogenic properties outside the range found in natural soils. Most comparative studies involve soils farmed during one period in the past, but there are examples involving multiple periods that allow studies of soil change pathways. Soil change outcomes range from degradation to enhancement of soil productivity.

SAA 2015 abstracts made available in tDAR courtesy of the Society for American Archaeology and Center for Digital Antiquity Collaborative Program to improve digital data in archaeology. If you are the author of this presentation you may upload your paper, poster, presentation, or associated data (up to 3 files/30MB) for free. Please visit for instructions and more information.

Cite this Record

Approaches to assessing anthropogenic soil-landscape change in ancient agricultural systems. Jonathan Sandor, Jeffrey Homburg. Presented at The 80th Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology, San Francisco, California. 2015 ( tDAR id: 396002)