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Contacts under the lens: Perspectives on the role of microstratigraphy in archaeological research

Abstract

Achieving an accurate perception of time and context remains a major challenge in archaeology. This paper highlights the potential benefits of microstratigraphic study to address this goal, drawing on case studies from Lower, Middle, and Upper Paleolithic, Neolithic, and Iron Age archaeological sites. First, we discuss the importance of site formation reconstruction and the ways in which current field methods approach the sedimentary record. Then, we focus on both field identification and high-resolution study of stratigraphic contacts, which are ubiquitous in archaeological deposits. Examples are presented to highlight the role of microstratigraphy in characterizing the nature of contacts and their significance for archaeological interpretation. A microstratigraphic approach is especially useful for distinguishing between contacts that originate from changes in depositional processes and contacts that form as a result of post-depositional processes such as pedogenesis, diagenesis, or burning. Further examples show how “invisible” anthropogenic surfaces and different kinds of occupation deposits can come to light at a microscopic scale of observation. Finally, we illustrate cases in which what appeared to be sterile layers in the field yielded anthropogenic elements. In the end, we discuss how archaeological projects might incorporate microstratigraphic analyses and their results within broader research frameworks that prioritize site formation process reconstruction.

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Acknowledgments

Our presentations at the Bridging the Gaps workshop shared a common theme: things may not be what they seem. This paper developed from this idea and from the lively discussion that followed. We would like to thank the organizers of the Bridging the Gaps workshop and its participants for their engaging ideas regarding the position of geoarchaeology—its methods and theory—within the broader field. We are grateful to our colleagues M. Ozbaşaran, G. Duru, M. Voyatzis, D. Romano, S. Kuhn, M. Stiner, P. Goldberg, B. Galván, and F. Bernaldo de Quirós for granting us access to samples and permission to publish case studies drawn from ongoing and unpublished work. Our microstratigraphic analyses at the sites of Üçağızlı Caves I and II, Mt. Lykaion, Aşıklıi Höyük, Obi-Rakhmat, El Salt, ‘Ubeidiya, Bizat Ruhama, and El Castillo were supported by the following funding sources: the National Science Foundation (USA), PEO International, the University of Arizona NSF-IGERT Program in Archaeological Sciences, DAAD, INSTAP, the Weiner Lab at the American School for Classical Studies at Athens, the American School of Prehistoric Research, and the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness. We would also like to thank D.G. Romano, L. Wallace, C. Miller, and C. Hernández for their insights into excavation methodologies and for providing comments on earlier drafts of this work.

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Mallol, C., Mentzer, S.M. Contacts under the lens: Perspectives on the role of microstratigraphy in archaeological research. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 9, 1645–1669 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-015-0288-6

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Keywords

  • Micromorphology
  • Stratigraphy
  • Occupation surfaces
  • Excavation methods