Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 209–230 | Cite as

Sampling Design and Inferential Bias in Archaeological Soil Chemistry

  • E. Christian Wells


The ways and extent to which sampling design influences data collection and archaeological inference is a constant concern for archaeologists. Yet, spatial analyses based on anthrosol chemistry have been less willing to concede this problem and to explore potential solutions. This article reviews the recent literature on soil sampling for spatial studies and then uses an example from prehispanic Honduras to examine how both quantitative and qualitative interpretations of soil chemical patterns can shift when sampling design changes. The results of this study suggest that the principal challenges to selecting an appropriate sampling design are in determining the sample size and density, as well as recognizing and adequately dealing with variation in the soil properties being measured. These findings provide cautionary tales for spatial studies aimed at using soil chemical data to infer activity patterns in the archaeological record.


Soil sampling Anthrosol chemistry Spatial analysis Activity patterns Honduras 



I would like to thank Sandra L. López Varela, Christopher D. Dore, and Manuel R. Palacios-Fest for inviting me to participate in the original symposium in which a preliminary draft of this paper was presented at the 2006 Annual Meeting of the Society for American Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and for all their hard work on its subsequent expansion and publication. Research at El Coyote was conducted with the permission and assistance of the Instituto Hondureño de Antropología e Historia. I am exceedingly grateful to Patricia A. Urban and Edward M. Schortman for allowing me to conduct this research and for their support throughout the project. Funding for my research was provided by the National Science Foundation (BCS-0108742) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (GR. 6810). Soil analysis was conducted with the support and advice of James H. Burton and T. Douglas Price at the Laboratory for Archaeological Chemistry at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. López Varela, Dore, Karla L. Davis-Salazar, and three anonymous reviewers read drafts of this manuscript and provided very useful comments that helped improve the arguments in this paper.


  1. Atkinson, P. M. (1996). Optimal sampling strategies for raster-based geographical information systems. Global Ecology and Biogeography Letters, 5(4/5), 271–280.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bethell, P., & Máté, I. (1989). The use of soil phosphate analysis in archaeology: A critique. In J. Henderson (Ed.), Scientific analysis in archaeology and its interpretation, institute of archaeology (pp. 1–29). Los Angeles: University of California.Google Scholar
  3. Binford, L. R. (1964). A consideration of archaeological research design. American Antiquity, 29(4), 425–441.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Boekhold, E. E., & Van der Zee, S. (1992). Significance of soil chemical heterogeneity for spatial behavior of cadmium in field soils. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 56(3), 747–754.Google Scholar
  5. Burgesse, T. M., Webster, R., & McBratney, A. B. (1981). Optimal interpolation and isarithmic mapping of soil properties: IV, sampling strategy. Journal of Soil Science, 32(3), 643–659.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Burton, J. H., & Simon, A. W. (1993). Acid extraction as a simple and inexpensive method for compositional characterization of archeological ceramics. American Antiquity, 58(1), 45–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Campbell, J. B., & Edmonds, W. J. (1984). The missing geographic dimension to soil taxonomy. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 74(1), 83–97.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Casteel, R. W. (1970). Core and column sampling. American Antiquity, 35(4), 465–467.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Champion, T., Cuming, P., & Shennan, S. J. (1996). Planning for the past, vol. 3. Decision-making and field methods in archaeological evaluation. London: English Heritage and University of Southampton.Google Scholar
  10. Cook, S. R., Clarke, A. S., & Fulford, M. G. (2005). Soil geochemistry and detection of early roman precious metal and copper alloy working at the roman town of calleva atrebatum (Silchester, Hampshire, UK). Journal of Archaeological Science, 32(5), 805–812.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Crowther, J. (1997). Soil phosphate surveys: critical approaches to sampling, analysis and interpretation. Archaeological Prospection, 4(2), 93–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Entwistle, J. A., Abrahams, P. W., & Dodgshon, R. A. (2000). The geoarchaeological significance and spatial variability of a range of physical and chemical soil properties from a former habitation site, isle of skye. Journal of Archaeological Science, 27(4), 287–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Entwistle, J. A., McCaffrey, K. J. W., & Dodgshon, R. A. (2007). Geostatistical and multi-elemental analysis of soils to interpret land-use history in the Hebrides, Scotland. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 22(4), 391–415.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Fisher, E., Thornton, B., Hudson, G., & Edwards, A. C. (1998). The variability in total and extractable soil phosphorus under a grazed pasture. Plant and Soil, 203(2), 249–255.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Goldberg, P., & Macphail, R. I. (2006). Practical and theoretical geoarchaeology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing.Google Scholar
  16. Goovaerts, P. (1999). Geostatistics in soil science: state-of-the-art and perspectives. Geoderma, 89, 1–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Hammond, L. C., Pritchett, W. L., & Chew, V. (1958). Soil sampling in relation to soil heterogeneity. Soil Science Society of America Proceedings, 22(6), 548–552.Google Scholar
  18. Haslam, R., & Tibbett, M. (2004). Sampling and analyzing metals in soils for archaeological prospection: a critique. Geoarchaeology, 19(8), 731–751.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Heizer, R. F. (1949). A manual of archaeological field methods. Millbrae: National Press.Google Scholar
  20. Hester, T. R., Shafer, H. J., & Feder, K. L. (1997). Field methods in archaeology (7th ed.). Mountain View: Mayfield.Google Scholar
  21. Holliday, V. T. (2004). Soils in archaeological research. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Holliday, V. T., & Gartner, W. G. (2007). Methods of soil p analysis in archaeology. Journal of Archaeological Science, 34(2), 301–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Howell, T. L. (1993). Evaluating the utility of auger testing as a predictor of subsurface artifact density. Journal of Field Archaeology, 20(4), 475–484.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Hutson, S. R., & Terry, R. E. (2006). Recovering social and cultural dynamics from plaster floors: chemical analyses at ancient chunchucmil, Yucatan, Mexico. Journal of Archaeological Science, 33(3), 391–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Kintigh, K. W. (1988). The effectiveness of subsurface testing: a simulation approach. American Antiquity, 53(4), 686–707.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Kitanidis, P. K. (1997). Introduction to geostatistics: applications in hydrogeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Kitanidis, P. K., & Shen, K.-F. (1996). Geostatistical interpolation of chemical concentration. Advances in Water Resources, 19(6), 369–378.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Kozar, B., Lawrence, R., & Long, D. S. (2002). Soil phosphorus and potassium mapping using a spatial correlation model incorporating terrain slope gradient. Precision Agriculture, 3(4), 407–412.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Krakker, J. J., Shott, M. J., & Welch, P. D. (1983). Design and evaluation of shovel-test sampling in regional archaeological survey. Journal of Field Archaeology, 10(4), 469–480.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lark, R. M. (2003). Two robust estimators of the cross-variogram for multivariate geostatistical analysis of soil properties. European Journal of Soil Science, 54(1), 187–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lewis, R. J., Foss, J. E., Morris, M. W., Timpson, M. E., & Stiles, C. A. (1993). Trace element analysis in pedo-archaeology studies. In J. E. Foss, M. E. Timpson, & M. W. Morris (Eds.), Proceedings of the 1st international conference on pedo-archaeology, special publication 93-03 (pp. 81–88). Knoxville: University of Tennessee Agricultural Experiment Station.Google Scholar
  32. Lightfoot, K. G. (1986). Regional surveys in the eastern United States: the strengths and weaknesses of implementing subsurface testing programs. American Antiquity, 51(3), 484–504.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Lindsay, W. L., & Norvell, W. A. (1978). Development of a DTPA test for zinc, iron, manganese, and copper. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 42(3), 421–428.Google Scholar
  34. Lloyd, C. D., & Atkinson, P. M. (2004). Archaeology and geostatistics. Journal of Archaeological Science, 31(2), 151–165.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Marshall, A. (2001). Functional analysis of settlement areas: prospection over a defended enclosure of iron age date at the bowsings, guiting power, Gloucestershire, UK. Archaeological Prospection, 8(2), 79–106.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. McBratney, A. B., & Webster, R. (1981). The design of optimal sampling schemes for local estimation and mapping of regionalized variables, II: program and examples. Computers and Geosciences, 7(4), 335–365.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Mehlich, A. (1978). New extractant for soil test evaluation of phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, calcium, sodium, manganese, and zinc. Communications in Soil Science and Plant Analysis, 9(6), 477–492.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Meul, M., & Van Meirvenne, M. (2003). Kriging soil texture under different types of nonstationarity. Geoderma, 112(3–4), 217–233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Middleton, W. D., & Price, T. D. (1996). Identification of activity areas by multi-elemental characterization of sediments from modern and archaeological house floors using inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission spectroscopy. Journal of Archaeological Science, 23(5), 673–687.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Nance, J. D., & Ball, B. F. (1986). No surprises? The reliability and validity of test pit sampling. American Antiquity, 51(3), 457–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Oonk, S., Slomp, C. P., & Huisman, D. J. (2009). Geochemistry as an aid in archaeological prospection and site interpretation: current issues and research directions. Archaeological Prospection, 16, 35–51.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Orton, C. (2000). Sampling in archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Parnell, J. J., Terry, R. E., & Golden, C. (2001). Using in-field phosphate testing to rapidly identify middens at Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 16(8), 855–873.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Parnell, J. J., Terry, R. E., & Nelson, Z. (2002). Soil chemical analysis applied as an interpretive tool for ancient human activities in Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Journal of Archaeological Science, 29(4), 379–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Price, J. C., Hunter, R. G., & McMichael, E. V. (1964). Core drilling in an archaeological site. American Antiquity, 30(2), 219–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Redman, C. L. (1987). Surface collection, sampling, and research design: a retrospective. American Antiquity, 52(2), 249–265.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Reed, N. A., Bennett, J. W., & Porter, J. W. (1968). Solid core drilling of monk’s mound: technique and findings. American Antiquity, 33(2), 137–148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Robertson, G. P., Crum, J. R., & Ellis, B. G. (1993). The spatial variability of soil resources following long-term disturbance. Oecologia, 96(4), 451–456.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Shott, M. J. (1985). Shovel-test sampling as a site discovery technique: a case study from Michigan. Archaeological Prospection, 12(4), 457–468.Google Scholar
  50. Shott, M. J. (1987). Feature discovery and the sampling requirements of archaeological evaluations. Journal of Field Archaeology, 14(3), 359–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Shott, M. J. (1989). Shovel-test sampling in archaeological survey: comments on nance and ball, and lightfoot. American Antiquity, 54(2), 396–404.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Snedecor, G. W., & Cochrane, W. G. (1980). Statistical methods (7th ed.). Ames: Iowa State University Press.Google Scholar
  53. Stein, J. K. (1986). Coring archaeological sites. American Antiquity, 51(3), 505–527.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Stein, A., & Ettema, C. (2003). An overview of spatial sampling procedures and experimental design studies for ecosystem comparisons. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment, 94(1), 31–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Tan, K. H. (2005). Soil sampling, preparation, and analysis (2nd ed.). Boca Raton: CRC Press.Google Scholar
  56. Terry, R. E., Hardin, P. J., Houston, S. D., Nelson, S. D., Jackson, M. W., Carr, J., et al. (2000). Quantitative phosphorus measurement: a field test procedure for archaeological site analysis at Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 15(2), 151–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Usowicz, B., & Kossowski, J. (2001). Spatial variation of soil moisture and sampling strategy. In J. Blahovec & M. Libra (Eds.), Proceedings of the international conference on physical methods in agriculture: Approach to precision and quality (pp. 319–323). Prague: Czech University of Agriculture.Google Scholar
  58. Webster, R., & Oliver, M. A. (1990). Statistical methods in soil and land resource survey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  59. Welch, B. L. (1951). On the comparison of several mean values: an alternative approach. Biometrika, 38(3–4), 330–336.Google Scholar
  60. Wells, E. C. (2003). Artisans, chiefs, and feasts: Classic period social dynamics at El Coyote, Honduras, Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, Tempe.Google Scholar
  61. Wells, E. C. (2004). Investigating activity patterns in prehispanic plazas: weak acid-extraction ICP/AES analysis of anthrosols at classic period El Coyote, Northwest Honduras. Archaeometry, 46(1), 67–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Wells, E. C. (2007). Faenas, ferias, and fiestas: Ritual finance in ancient and modern Honduras. In E. C. Wells & K. L. Davis-Salazar (Eds.), Mesoamerican ritual economy: Archaeological and ethnological perspectives (pp. 29–65). Boulder: University Press of Colorado.Google Scholar
  63. Wells, E. C., Novotny, C., & Hawken, J. R. (2007). Predictive modeling of soil chemical data by ICP-OES reveals the uses of ancient Mesoamerican plazas. In M. D. Glascock, R. J. Speakman, & R. S. Popelka-Filcoff (Eds.), Archaeological chemistry: Analytical techniques and archaeological interpretation (pp. 210–230). Washington, DC: American Chemical Society.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  64. Wells, E. C., & Terry, R. E. (2007). Introduction to the special issue: advances in geoarchaeological approaches to anthrosol chemistry, part II: activity area analysis. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 22(4), 387–390.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Wells, E. C., Terry, R. E., Hardin, P. J., Parnell, J. J., Houston, S. D., & Jackson, M. W. (2000). Chemical analyses of ancient anthrosols in residential areas at Piedras Negras, Guatemala. Journal of Archaeological Science, 27(5), 449–462.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Wells, E. C., & Urban, P. A. (2002). An ethnoarchaeological perspective on the material and chemical residues of communal feasting at El Coyote, Northwest Honduras. In P. Vandiver, M. Goodway, & J. Mass (Eds.), Materials issues in art and archaeology VI, MRS proceedings vol. 712 (pp. 193–198). Warrendale: Materials Research Society.Google Scholar
  67. Wobst, H. M. (1983). We can’t see the forest for the trees: Sampling and shapes of archaeological distributions. In J. A. Moore & A. S. Keene (Eds.), Archaeological hammers and theories (pp. 37–85). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  68. Yfantis, E. A., Flatman, G. T., & Behar, J. V. (1987). Efficiency of kriging estimation for square, triangular, and hexagonal grids. Mathematical Geology, 19(3), 183–205.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Young, F. J., & Hammer, R. D. (2000). Defining geographic soil bodies by landscape position, soil taxonomy, and cluster analysis. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 64(3), 989–998.Google Scholar
  70. Zhang, C., Jordan, C., & Higgins, A. (2007). Using neighborhood statistics and GIS to quantify and visualize spatial variation in geochemical variables: an example using Ni concentrations in the topsoils of Northern Ireland. Geoderma, 137(3–4), 466–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of South FloridaTampaUSA

Personalised recommendations