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Signatures in Anthropological SOILs: Developments for the identification of activities associated with daily life

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Looking at ancient cultures in the soil

A recent archaeology project has shed light on life in an ancient village near Stonehenge by examining the organic composition of soils in the area.

Climate Change and Environment

There are countless human behaviours and activities that affect the soils we come into contact with. Food preparation, crafting and keeping domestic animals will all leave signatures of organic molecules that can be measured with sophisticated equipment. The EU-funded ANTHROSOIL (Signatures in anthropological soils: Developments for the identification of activities associated with daily life) project aimed to develop methods to identify such signatures then test the methods out on an archaeological site near Stonehenge. The village of Durrington Walls is one of the most well-studied British archaeological sites, believed to be where the Stonehenge workers stayed during its construction. Researchers collected more than 500 soil samples from within and around the houses of Durrington Walls. These samples were tested for elemental composition (nitrogen, oxygen and carbon) and presence of lipids using sophisticated biochemical analysis. The soil make-up in the area required an extra acid extraction step to identify lipids that were bound to soil carbonates. ANTHROSOIL used software to map each soil sample to its precise location, and searched the data for patterns and insights into daily activities. The researchers gained new insights into diet, daily activities and how each building was used. The methods developed in ANTHROSOIL are widely applicable to archaeologists around the world. Applying soil organic analysis to archaeology will expand the tools available to researchers studying ancient sites.


Soil, Stonehenge, organic molecules, archaeological site, soil organic analysis

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