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Taking a Summer Semester: Soil Micromorphology

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Written by: Dylan Braun

August 25th 2023

One part of university that many students can struggle with is trying to determine if a summer semester is right for them. This decision can be particularly difficult for archaeology students who are deciding between working, attending a field school, or doing classwork for their summer. Obviously, with the fantastic weather, choosing to take a summer semester can feel like you’re missing out, but it can be extremely useful for those trying to fill out graduation requirements. This summer, I took four courses (2 intersession, 1 summer session, and 1 full semester), and wanted to discuss how the Soil Micromorphology intersession course went to help give insight into how an intersession during the summer looks.

Alcaraz-Castaño, Manuel, Javier Alcolea-González, et al. 2017. A context for the last Neandertals of interior Iberia: Los Casares cave revisited. Edited by Michael D. Petraglia. PLOS ONE 12(7):e0180823.

Being a 5-unit intersession course, soil micromorphology crams a lot of information into just over a month. The class met four times a week, alternating between lectures and labs. The lectures focused on learning about different aspects of geology and soil formation. Various features of soil development were discussed, and how each can affect soil horizons in different ways. Early into the course, we had the opportunity to walk some of the trails around Burnaby Mountain and identify these horizons in the field. We also learned about how soil thin sections are made to record this information and study it further by identifying different features in them under a microscope. In the first lab, we were given various thin sections of rocks and soils to get familiar with how they look under a petrographic microscope. The rest of the labs put these skills to work as each student was assigned a thin section to describe more and more thoroughly with every lab. In our second lab, we tried our best to describe our entire thin sections as best we could with no experience, but in each lab after that, we learned a different aspect of micromorphology that helped us describe our slides a little better.

Minerals and rocks under the microscope - standard and cross-polarized views. Photos taken by Dylan Braun

Studying dirt ended up being a lot more interesting than it sounds. The petrographic microscope allowed for nearly every individual particle to be seen, which was always a fascinating sight. Once the cross-polarizing filter was put in, the entire slide seemed to turn into a wild kaleidoscope. Slowly learning how to make any sense of it was a great experience. Each mineral has different properties that can allow it to be identified under the microscope. Features like inference colours that ranged from the plain black and white of quartz to the vibrant colours of minerals like olivine and twinning leading to some minerals like chalcedony to develop black bands when rotated under cross-polarization all helped to determine the minerals that made up the soil.

One of the final aspects I learned about was how to identify anthropogenic features, which really showed how soil micromorphology can help archaeologists in the field. Features can be used to identify activities like trampling from frequent walking or charcoal indicating fire pits or hearths. The thin section I worked on ended up having an area of dense charcoal running through it, which could have been a sign of human activity in the area. It was really cool to see how something that could easily be missed in regular field work could be so visible once examined in a lab.

The intersession course seemed to fly by incredibly fast, probably due to being just over a month long. It was also due to always having a lot of new, cool things to learn every day. Being able to take what you learn one day and immediately apply it to the next was a fun experience, although the schedule didn’t leave much time for other work outside of the classroom. I’d recommend this intersession course to most students both for being a fun class a lot of the time, and it (along with the Soup and Nuts course also offered this summer) helps to fill out Group II requirements which can sometimes be tricky to fit into a schedule during the other semesters. Keep an eye on what intersessions are being offered next summer; they can be a fantastic opportunity to learn something new!

The Soil Micromorphology class hard at work. Image courtesy of Dr. Francesco Berna.


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