ENVU9GA: Geoarchaeology: Soils and sediments as landscape histories

CO-ORDINATOR: Professor Ian A. Simpson

LEVEL 10: 20 credits (35 contact hours)


In this research based module geoarchaeology is defined as the reading of soil and sediment stratigraphies found in archaeological and historical landscapes.  These stratigraphies reflect site activities and early land uses together with associated environmental contexts; they are records of the complex relationships between past societies and bio-physical processes, of landscape histories.  Taking a resource management perspective the module gives theoretical frameworks for interpreting soils and sediments as records of the past and provides training in field and laboratory methods that identify, quantify and evaluate early human activities and environmental imprints.  These understandings and skills contribute new landscape histories for the North Atlantic and South Asian regions.  This work offers important and challenging perspectives on how people lived with and adapted to environmental change and has resonance with contemporary debates on sustainability, resilience and heritage management. 

Learning Outcomes

  • Understanding the principles and practice of interpreting soils and sediment stratigraphies as records of the past.
  • Understanding the contributions of soils and sediment analyses in interpretations of key aspects of landscape history including site formation processes in environmental settings and early land and water management practices.
  • Ability to integrate soils and sedimentary evidence with inter-disciplinary sources, including documentary, archaeological and environmental information, to address broader issues of society – environment change interactions.

Acquired Skills

  • Field-based competences in the survey, description and analyses of geoarchaeology based soil / sediment stratigraphies in geoarchaeological contexts.
  • Laboratory-based competences in the quantification and analyses of geoarchaeology based soil / sediment properties. 
  • Research-related skills in reviewing, hypothesis setting, method selection, data interpretation, contextualisation.
  • Presentation skills to a range of audiences including policy makers, heritage managers and the academic community.

Research–led Elements

The module is research led and focused on how understanding of landscape history and change is established and verified.  Each seminar is based on a series of research papers and the practical is based on a live, current, research project.  The module also leads directly into research dissertation topics in Geoarchaeology and Landscape History with the opportunity to work with a research group in the North Atlantic region, South Asia or in Scotland (see the following web links for details of research activities).




Reading for this module includes a) a general text book on geoarchaeology giving context to the module and b) a set of research papers for each seminar session; it is expected that the research papers are read prior to the seminar session as a foundation for discussion. 

Resource lists with the required reading and links to papers via the library, together with the seminar PowerPoint presentations, are available on Succeed.  To log on to Succeed go to the portal as usual with your network user name and password.  Then click on Succeed and select the course code ENVU9GA.

Seminars (22 contact hours)


1. Soil and sediment stratigraphies as landscape histories: concepts, the Anthropocene, soil-system models and practicalities

From pristine space to cultural place: Geoarchaeologies of North Atlantic landscapes

2. Transitioning landscapes.  Land organisation and management from Mesolithic to Iron Age.

3.  Landscapes of settlement I. Crossing the threshold, Grazing pressures and landscape responses

4.  Landscapes of settlement II.   Regional adaptations to the Norse homefield.

5.  Landscapes of settlement III.  Fuel resource utilisation

6.  Blue foot – green foot: the emergence of specialist fishing seascapes and landscapes.

Contested meanings: Geoarchaeologies of South Asian landscapes

7. Peopling the rainforest.  Environmental change and human adaptation in late Pleistocene landscapes

8. The natal landscape of the Buddha.  Reconstructing sacred landscapes from soils based records.

9.  The dry tank.  Water management infrastructures in urban hinterlands.


10. Geoarchaeology applied to contemporary policy issues: a) sustainable and resilient landscapes - why do some communities succeed when others fail?; b) heritage landscapes - how can they be managed for economic development and poverty alleviation?; c) contributions to protected space designations, environmental assessments and development control.

11. Geoarchaeology in outreach education and in citizen science; geoarchaeology and employability - a Stirling graduate discusses.

Practical Research Project (12 contact hours). 

Geoarchaologies of Scottish Industrialisation - Improvement dynamics (G-SIID): Historic mining activity and the formation of Technosols, Tyndrum Lead Mine

Field programme (full day field work): Field visit to Tyndrum Lead Mine (mapping, stratigraphy description and sampling sessions). 

Laboratory programme (two three hour laboratory sessions): Micromorphology (optical  / SEM-EDX) and XRF analyses of Tyndrum technosol samples.  Based in the Micromorphology and Palaeoecology Laboratory, Room 3B151 Cottrell Building.

For this module a Research Project Report (maximum 3,500 words excluding references) is to be submitted.

Essay Research Review (1 contact hour)

Systematically review current understanding in one of the following themes:

For this module a systematic  Research Review on a key Geoarchaeology theme (maximum 3,500 words excluding references) is to be submitted

One seminar session will be held to discuss and give guidance on the development of research reviews and research project reports.


50% examination (2 questions; 2 hours, 25% each) / 50% course-work (1 Research Project report and 1 Research Review).  The minimum grade to obtain a pass for a module is 40%.  A grade of 40% or above is required to pass the module.

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