Week 12 SCRAP Reading Group: Soilscapes, Soil Memory, and Soil Legacies

Friday’s reading group was all about soils! Thank you to Dr. Cory Sills for providing the readings, summary, and discussion questions (see below). Twelve participants in Belize, Mexico, US, and Canada. Two hours of great discussion with a great group of people.

E. Christian Wells and Marlena Antonucci. 2018. “Reframing Heritage: Cultural Soilscapes and Soil Memory.” In Field to Palette: Dialogues on Soil and Art in the Anthropocene, eds Alexandra Toland, Jay Stratton Noller, Gerd Wessolek, 447-456. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

E. Christian Wells, Karla L. Davis-Salazzar, and David D. Kuehn. 2013. “Soilscape Legacies: Historical and Emerging Consequences of Socioecological Interactions in Honduras.” In Soils, Climate, and Society: Archaeological Investigations in Ancient America, eds John D. Wingard and Sue Eileen Hayes, 21-59. Boulder, CO: University of Press Colorado.

The two articles above were chosen for this week’s meeting because I (Cory) wanted to focus the discussion around geoarchaeology including soil chemistry. I am currently analyzing the sediment chemistry from the site of Taab Nuk Na, a submerged salt work in Paynes Creek National Park, that dates to the Late Classic Period. These articles, and many others, on the topic help to situate the sediment chemistry analysis in the framework of soilscapes. Additionally, I have really enjoyed the discussions in this group about public outreach and heritage education. I wanted to further add to our discussion by assigning the “Reframing Heritage” piece. What are some of the ways that we can engage the public with science? How do we situated our research so that the findings are relevant to issues communities face today?  

The manuscript titled “Soilscape Legacies: Historical and Emerging Consequences of Socioecological Interactions in Honduras” by Wells, Davis-Salazzar, and Kuehn reports the results of various soil analysis techniques to evaluate the extent of soil erosion as well as providing evidence of environmental degradation in the Palmarejo region of Honduras. The authors use a combination of geoarchaeology, pedological analysis, and archaeology to evaluate the areas soilscape. Soilscape is defined as soils that are altered directly by humans. Specific techniques including geomorphology (changing landforms over time), stratigraphy profiles, soil analysis including pH, loss-on-ignition (measures the % of organics in a sample), and extractable phosphates (% of Carbonate and amounts in mg/kg of Phosphate, Potassium, Nitrogen, and Phosphorus). Their interpretation of the results indicates that stable landforms in the area are the alluvial fans which would be most likely for settlement while terraces (less stable) would likely be cultivated. The soil analysis showed a decrease in nutrient capacity that corresponds to an increase in population suggesting greater cultivation of the soils during the 10th century.

In the manuscript “Reframing Heritage” an environmental anthropologist (Wells) teams up with an art historian and community coordinator (Antonucci) to examine the importance of soils in the heritage and transformation of brownfields in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Brownfields are blighted areas of a community that have been contaminated by chemicals from dilapidated buildings and/or industry. Future farmers, a contemporary-arts collective, created a Soil Kitchen where locals could bring the soil from their yard to be tested for contamination. In exchange they received a bowl of soup in a reimagined spaced that analyzed the soils on site.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is the environment linked to social processes and behaviors? What are some examples?
  2. What meaning and memory do soils have in the Maya area? For our own projects?
  3. What are the long-term consequences of humans’ interactions with soilscapes? What Wells et al. refers to as legacy.
  4. How does social value play a role in the preservation of commodities and resources?
  5. How have Western scientific ideas/analyses hampered the understanding of anthrosols of past societies?
  6. What role can archaeology play in discussions of climate change and current environmental resource management?
  7. What techniques can archaeologists develop to aid in public understanding about scientific results and discoveries?