Soil Micromorphology from Rendlesham – Excavations 2021

Person holding a soil sample block

Featured image: Professor French taking soil samples.

Professor Charles French is a professor of geoarchaeology at University of Cambridge, and the specialist advisor in environmental sampling for the Rendlesham Revealed project. Charly has completed the initial analysis of the environmental sampling taken from the Rendlesham excavations last summer. Charly is our guest writer this week to tell us more.

During the excavations at Rendlesham, soil samples were collected from the remains of six Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured buildings (wooden huts constructed over a pit).

This involved taking intact blocks of soil from the archaeological features, which were then processed into thin sections for micromorphological (the study of soils and sediments in thin section) and physical analyses. These analyses aim to characterise the fills of the archaeological features, to give an indication of how they were formed as well as to describe the soil formation history on the site.

Person cutting a block of soil in situ
Professor French taking soil samples of an Anglo-Saxon sunken-featured building

What do the samples tell us?

The modern soils are depleted, sandy loam brown earth with some podzolic features (acidic depleted soils characterised by highly humified organic matter between the sand grains). It is possible that modern farming and fertilisation practices have made this soil more alkaline in pH.

The soil from the remains of the excavated sunken-featured buildings is the same sandy loam, with highly broken down organic matter within the sand matrix. This suggests that this state of poor soil development already existed in the topsoil in the 8th/9th centuries AD.

These fills also contained very fine fragments of charcoal, unburnt clay, degraded and burnt bone, pottery and iron oxide replaced plant tissue. In one of the pits, there is evidence of periodic in-washing of fine sand and organic matter, indicative of rain splash, possibly meaning that the pits were left open to the elements.

Images of different types of samples
thin sections of the soil samples

This fieldwork is part of the community archaeology project Rendlesham Revealed: Anglo-Saxon Life in South-East Suffolk, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. We are very grateful to our many local and national partners who have made this project possible, and for the support of our volunteers and of the landowners and farmers who work and manage this historic landscape.

If you want to get involved with the Rendlesham Revealed project and future fieldwork, you can sign up to our e-newsletter for updates.

Find out More:

Soil samples from Rendlesham. What happens next?

Watch this video by Professor Charles French for a tour of the lab and to find out about how “thin section” soil samples are made

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