Encyclopedia of Geoarchaeology

2017 Edition
| Editors: Allan S. Gilbert

Colluvial Settings

  • Charles A. I. French
Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4020-4409-0_153


Colluvium, or hillwash, is both an erosive deposit and a preserving medium for buried surfaces. The term encompasses slope deposits moved by shallow surface flow (or slope wash) or by mass movement (or creep or slide). Colluvium is soil- and/or sediment-derived material that accumulates on lower slopes. It is poorly sorted and heterogeneous, composed of any size grade from clay to coarse sand plus rock rubble, and can be up to several meters thick (Waters, 1992, 230–232; Selby, 1993, 243). Bedding and stratification are often poor and particularly hard to identify in the field (as opposed to in thin section), and colluvium may also contain a variety of artifact inclusions brought down from upslope. Colluvium may occur any place that possesses more than two degrees of slope, even beneath woodland (Imeson et al., 1980).

Hillwash can be generated by a variety of processes, of which devegetation and agriculture are two of the main instigators. Consequently, colluvial sequences frequently contain a record of human activities and reflect anthropogenic impacts on landscapes. Colluvium also has the ability to distort, bury, and preserve past landscapes, especially over the last 10,000 years. How and why deposits are laid down and subsequently modified, and at what rate, are central issues in geoarchaeology. Detailed information can be gleaned from colluvial sequences through the use of good field recording, particle size analysis, associated soil micromorphological and molluscan studies, and appropriate use of dating techniques. Thus, hillwash is a valuable resource in archaeology and geoarchaeology, but an understanding of its formation, depositional processes, and chronology is required.

This entry examines and illustrates the formation and depositional factors causing hillwash in a variety of landscape settings in order to demonstrate its importance in the interpretation of past land use and human activities and exemplify these through a number of case studies from around the world.

Formation of hillwash

Slope processes regularly lead to soil erosion, transport, and redeposition of soils and sediments in valley situations (Figure 1), and they are therefore involved in both the alteration and the preservation of archaeological sites and landscapes. Soil/sediment movement may range from rapid to slow and intermittent to gradual. Every situation is exacerbated by the degree and character of the slope, topography, hydrology, vegetation cover, rainfall amounts and frequencies, and the nature of human activities on the land.
Colluvial settings, Figure 1

Schematic cross section of a colluviated valley landscape (After Allen, 1988; Goldberg and Macphail, 2006: Figure 4.4).

There are two major types of soil/sediment movement on slopes related to process: (1) slope, hill, and rainwash and (2) mass wasting. The former group generates colluvial deposits, and the latter group is associated more with solifluction and debris flow deposits. Mass movement involves the rapid downslope movement of rock and soil debris from a rupture surface and/or shear plane, which is usually controlled by the intact strength of the soil and/or subsoil (Statham, 1979; Statham, 1990). It is a fast movement, often as a single erosive event, with stability quickly returning. A rockfall after a freeze-thaw episode and slab failure on a rock face are typical examples. In the Sierra Cabrera mountains of southeastern Spain, for example, rock debris and gully erosion regularly shear off material from the upper slopes above the Barranco de Gatas, which falls onto the first agricultural terraces below as rubbly fans (French et al., 1998) (Figure 2a, b).
Colluvial settings, Figure 2

(a) Gully erosion on steep, bare slopes above Fuente Alamo, southern Spain. (b) Soil and rock debris accumulation in an abandoned agricultural terrace in the Barranco de Gatas, Sierra Cabrera, southern Spain.

Slow and/or seasonal slope processes produce slow downslope translocations of soil debris as soil creep or colluviation (Statham, 1979; Statham, 1990). These can be near continuous, seasonal, or random in occurrence, they can affect small or large areas of slope, and they can occur anywhere. This type of movement can result from frost heave in soils, periglacial conditions and solifluction, rainsplash impact, and saturation and/or waterlogging, often aggravated in arable areas by the farming regime. For example, massive soil creep can result from the saturation and cultivation of bare slopes, as is seen in Bosnia today (Figure 3a), or in sandy hillwash deposits accumulating at the base of slopes in later prehistoric to historic times adjacent to the grand Saxon burials at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk (Carver, 1998; French, 2005) (Figure 3b). Often, such areas of eroded soil accumulation are easily mapped from the air and ground-truthed through auger survey and test pitting, as exemplified by the mapping of later Holocene hillwash deposits in the dry valleys of the upper Allen valley of Dorset (French et al., 2007, 23–35) (Figure 4).
Colluvial settings, Figure 3

(a) Recent colluvial slumping near Prijedor, in central Bosnia. (b) Historic and later prehistoric sand hillwash overlying a disturbed acidic sandy brown earth in the Deben valley associated with the Bronze Age settlement site and Saxon ship burials at Sutton Hoo, Suffolk, England.

Colluvial settings, Figure 4

Colluvial accumulations in the upper Allen valley mapped against the terrain and archaeological record.

Slide or water flow processes such as overland flow on slopes and alluviation in floodplains produce variable rates of deposition. Overland flow is particularly influenced by slope angle, soil, and vegetation type and in turn by the amount of rainwater splash impact (Selby, 1993), as well as human impacts. During flow, the sediment load tends to decrease with time. Overland flow occurs when either the infiltration capacity of the soil is exceeded either during high intensity rainfall or during the rapid melting of snow. Grains of c. 0.5 mm in diameter are the most easily moved, whereas smaller and larger grains require a much higher threshold velocity. Grains are not redeposited until very low flow velocities are reached (Morgan, 1979). With reference to the Spanish example, past and recent colluvial fans and overland flow deposits comprising meters of coarse silt and very fine sand-size, calcitic marl material were regularly observed in out-of-use agricultural terraces and dry valleys of the Barranco de Gatas (French et al., 1998) (Figure 5a). Moreover, the removal of natural vegetation, the presence of steep slopes, and extensive past agricultural exploitation for wheat crops, coupled with increasing aridification since the second millennium BC, have exacerbated the susceptibility of soils and subsoils of this region to erode downslope (Castro et al., 1999).
Colluvial settings, Figure 5

(a) Overland flow colluvial soil creep and gullying of unmaintained terrace systems in the Barranco de Gatas, Sierra Cabrera, southern Spain. (b) Soil slumping and wastage in open cork oak woodland caused by pigs, near Troina in north-central Sicily.

The presence of colluvium is often directly related to human activities in the landscape and particularly to arable agriculture. Bare arable land and ongoing cultivation regularly result in the direct displacement of soil downslope and its redeposition at the base of the slope as colluvium or within the adjacent floodplain as alluvium (Figure 1). The exposure of soil/sediment particles and aggregates to the elements leads to further physical breakup of soil structure. Add water and a slope angle of greater than two degrees, and soil movement downslope can take place; if vegetation cover is removed, even greater soil erosion may occur (Figures 2a and 5b) more quickly and more often (Mücher, 1974; Kwaad and Mücher, 1979; Selby, 1993, 106–122). Disturbances due to people or animals can easily produce gullying and soil erosion as well as the accumulation of eroded soil/sediment downslope, often against boundaries (such as field banks and hedges) to form lynchets. For example, browsing of pigs in present-day cork oak woodland in northern Sicily has led to gully erosion and soil transport downslope within a few months (Figure 5b). Evidence of past soil erosion and accumulation is often seen associated with prehistoric field boundaries such as the later prehistoric “Celtic” fields and lynchets on the chalk downlands of southern England (Evans, 1972, 316; Limbrey, 1975, 188–189) (Figure 6), or at the base of slopes in the Aguas valley of southern Spain associated with the Bronze Age settlement and agriculture upslope of Las Pilas (French et al., 1998: Figure 13.5).
Colluvial settings, Figure 6

Later prehistoric field system banks or lynchets (raised former field boundaries consequent upon colluvial accumulation against hedgerows) at Abbotsbury, Dorset, England.

Different amounts and rates of saturation will also affect the threshold at which soil movement occurs as well as the speed and distance of travel. For example, if a soil requires only 50 % saturation to become mobile (or plastic), shear will occur more quickly and more often, dependent, of course, on the nature of the vegetation cover and degree of slope; if a soil becomes saturated at 90 % moisture content, however, it will be less susceptible to shear and colluvial displacement downslope (Selby, 1993, 56–63). Plowing and overcropping can lead to the depletion of not just essential minerals for plant or crop growth, but the destruction of soil structure, thus making a soil more prone to destabilization and downslope movement. Soil texture also affects its movement, with fine sandy and coarse silty soils being much more susceptible to destabilization than well-structured silty clay loam soils (Selby, 1993, 106–122). This will be compounded when vegetative cover is removed or the soil is physically disturbed by plowing or animal trampling.

In addition to these formation factors, it is also worth considering the ecological concepts of thresholds of stability/instability (Butzer, 1982; Allen, 1992). Change in just one factor in a landscape, or a combination of several factors, might be sufficient to cause instability in a soil system. This could be as simple as an individual thunderstorm event on a dry, bare soil, or it could be a combination of factors, such as an unstructured sandy soil fabric on overgrazed and degraded grassland with 20° of slope and a prolonged rainy spell that causes a catastrophic shear and slumping of soil downslope. Each response will be governed partly by climatic, environmental, human, and land-use factors as much as the diverse pattern and different magnitudes of individual valley responses.

Rates of colluvial movement

Rates of soil/sediment movement downslope can vary enormously over time, and modern experimental observations are often the only real analogue providing indications of the volume of soil moved versus soil texture, time, slope, vegetation, and land use (Table 1). For example, debris flow in southern Spain can produce up to several meters of accumulation in one event such as from a single thunderstorm (French, 2003, p. 207, Figure 13.7). This is because there is (1) almost no moisture infiltration into the soil/substrate, (2) a high erodibility index, and (3) a lack of vegetative cover, all leading to very high rates of runoff (Thornes and Gilman, 1983). Colluvial soil creep can be continuous, seasonal, or random. Its formation can be exacerbated by steeper slope gradients, bare soil surfaces, soil moisture exceeding its infiltration capacity, soil/sediment texture, rainfall and temperature regime, and human activities such as plowing.
Colluvial settings, Table 1

Examples of measured rates of soil erosion from experimental plots in the southeastern United States (After Kirkby, 1969)

Type of vegetation cover

% runoff

Soil loss (mm per year)

Oak forest



Grass pasture



Oak woodland



Bare abandoned land



Cultivated, with rows along the contour



Cultivated, with rows downslope



Rates of colluviation have been observed in many modern landscapes, and these data provide a good idea of the speed and volumes of material that can be moved downslope under particular conditions. For example, under coppiced oak/beech woodland on loessic (or windblown) soils in Luxembourg, as much as 6 cm of soil per 100 years had accumulated (Kwaad and Mücher, 1979; Imeson et al., 1980). Observed rates of soil loss can vary from 0.0045 g per square meter per year for areas of moderate relief under natural conditions to 0.045 kg per square meter per year for steep relief and rates of 4.5–45 kg per square meter per year on agricultural land (Young, 1969). A major controlling factor is the angle of slope; the total transport caused by sheet erosion has been observed to increase sixfold as the slope angle increased from flat to 25° (Moseley, 1973).

Factors that influence soil erosion and its severity are rainfall, runoff, wind, soil type, slope angle, and the amount of vegetative cover, both on localized and regional scales. Erosion tends to reach a maximum in temperate, semiarid areas with a mean annual rainfall of c. 250–350 mm per year (Langbein and Schumm, 1958). In more humid areas, and as one moves from drier to wetter environments, rates of erosion initially decrease rapidly to the point (at c. 600 mm per year) at which total vegetation cover is established; rates change little thereafter. For example, in the northern Cambridgeshire region, where the annual rainfall varies between 500 and 600 mm (Burton, 1981), the greater vegetative cover tends to counteract the erosive effect of greater rainfall. In contrast, the Rio Puerco of New Mexico experiences very low rainfall of 200 mm per year that occurs during thunderstorms; land use associated with intensive livestock grazing has contributed to conditions resulting in massive river incision of up to 11–12 m over approximately the past 120 years (French et al., 2009).

Rainsplash is probably the most important detaching agent and contributes considerably to runoff. Splash back following raindrop impact on a level surface has been observed to move stones 4 mm in diameter up to 20 cm, while 2 mm sized stones can be displaced up to 40 cm, and even smaller stones up to 150 cm (Kirkby, 1969). Short-lived, intense, and prolonged storms of low intensity have the greatest erosive effect (Morgan, 1979; French et al., 2009).

Surface runoff or overland flow occurs on slopes when the soil’s infiltration capacity is exceeded (Kirkby, 1969). Overland flow transports soil particles detached by rainsplash, often creating distinct gullies or channels (Figure 2a). It has been suggested that overland flow covers two-thirds or more of hillsides in a drainage basin during the peak period of a storm (Horton, 1945). Grains of c. 0.5 mm in diameter (coarse silt or very fine- and fine-sized sand) are most easily moved, whereas both smaller and larger grains require a much higher threshold velocity. Clay tends to resist detachment (Farmer, 1973). Grains are not redeposited until very low flow velocities are reached (Morgan, 1979). Subsurface soil water flow erodes possibly only 1 % of the total material from a hillside (Roose, 1970).

The resistance of soil to detachment and transport depends on the steepness of slope, vegetative cover, and disturbance by humans. It also varies with soil texture, aggregate stability, shear strength, infiltration capacity, and the organic and chemical components (Selby, 1993, 106–122). The least resistant particles are silts and fine sands. Soils with a low shear strength or low cohesiveness are susceptible to mass movement, as are those with a low infiltration rate and low organic matter content (Morgan, 1979).

The effect of slope is to increase erosion with increasing slope angle (Kirkby, 1969). Numerous forces such as gravity, frost heave, rainsplash, soil texture, and the lack of vegetative cover all help to produce erosion on slopes. The amount of vegetative cover has a considerable effect on the susceptibility of soil to erosion. Its effectiveness in reducing downslope erosion depends on the height, density, and continuity of the canopy or ground/root cover. Both forest and dense grass are more or less equally effective at reducing erosion. Vegetation intercepts rainfall and reduces the velocity of runoff. Mean annual soil loss on bare ground can be as much as 100 times the volume of loss from dense grass-covered ground under the same environmental conditions (Morgan, 1979), and soil loss on vegetated slopes can be reduced by 10–30 % (Horton, 1945). Moreover, conversion of forest to arable land will dramatically increase erosion by up to 200-fold (Wolman, 1967). Thus, vegetation is a critical factor, and the removal of plant cover especially on slopes can considerably enhance the potential for erosion by overland flow, slope wash, or some other mode of transport.

Hillwash deposition may frequently be discontinuous, with many pauses in the gradual sediment buildup. These episodic sequences are not always easily detectable in the field, but they may exhibit “standstill” horizons that usually show some organic accumulation and a degree of soil formation if the hiatus was of sufficient duration to allow some pedogenesis to occur. A good example of this is at Brean Down, Somerset, where a basal Neolithic paleosol was buried by a sequence of hillwash and blown sand episodes that were interrupted by standstill phases with turf development and several later prehistoric, Bronze Age occupations (Bell, 1990) (Figure 7a). This type of sequence lends itself to good dating through both archaeological and artifact associations as well as radiocarbon and/or luminescence techniques (see below).
Colluvial settings, Figure 7

(a) Repeated paleosol, hillwash, and blown sand deposits of Bronze Age to medieval times at Brean Down, Somerset, England (Bell, 1990: Figure 32). (b) Two major episodes of rendzina soil erosion and colluvial accumulation bracketing an incipient rendzina soil of the Roman period (at the level of the tape measure) within the interior of the late Neolithic henge at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire, England. (c) Episodic pre-Roman loessic soil erosion and paleosol formation at Erd in the Benta valley, central Hungary. (d) Two phases of soil development in post-Neolithic hillwash deposits at Bet el-Kowmani in the Dhamar highlands of Yemen.

Variable hillwash accumulations are common. For example, Bronze Age settlement and agriculture on the sand-dominated soils at Sutton Hoo have led to over 1.5 m of undifferentiated soil hillwash accumulation downslope in the adjacent Deben valley (Figure 3b). In contrast, two major episodes of hillwash accumulation, one predating and the other postdating the Romano-British period, were found within the center of the late Neolithic henge at Durrington Walls, Wiltshire (Figure 7b). Associated with this was a major erosive interval affecting the calcitic rendzina soil material that was found in old paleochannels of the Avon valley at Durrington Walls (French et al., 2012). Also, a mixture of thick deposits of soil and rock debris is known to aggrade episodically as colluvium in dry valleys of Sussex in southeastern England from at least the Beaker period, e.g., at Newbarn Combe on the Isle of Wight (Allen, 1992: Figure 4.2; Bell, 1992: Figure 3.3; Boardman, 1992). Near Szazhalombatta in the lower Benta tributary of the Danube, there were three episodic periods of hillwash accumulation – in the Bronze Age, Iron Age, and medieval times – each on an old land surface represented by a paleosol indicating a lengthy period of stability (French, 2010a) (Figure 7c). Several episodic phases of hillwash accumulation were also observed burying Neolithic paleosols in the Dhamar highlands of Yemen (French, 2003, 224–234; Wilkinson, 2005) (Figure 7d).

Nine-unit land-surface erosion model and catena sequence

The use of Dalrymple et al.’s (1968) nine-unit land-surface erosion model (Figure 8) is a good way of envisaging erosion and landscape change both across and within a valley landscape. It allows the visualization of every part of a landscape at whatever scale of investigation is being used. This model creates an idealized cross section through one-half of a valley, from the watershed boundary at the highest point of the valley to the river channel below. If this model is then combined with the catena concept (see below), both geomorphological processes and soil formation and change can be seen in combination. When archaeological distributions by time period are overlaid and related to these geomorphological contours, they form the beginnings of a two-dimensional model of landscape development, which when extended and viewed in plan allows the use of digital terrain and geographical information system models to analyze landscape change in three dimensions through time. A case study of this type of work in the upper Allen valley of the chalk downlands of southern England (French et al., 2007) is discussed below.
Colluvial settings, Figure 8

Dalrymple’s nine-unit land-surface model (After Dalrymple et al., 1968).

A catena (based on the Latin word for chain) is a sequence of soils that forms along the course of a particular slope, usually over one parent material (Limbrey, 1975, 83; Goldberg and Macphail, 2006, 63). The differences between the soils that form a catena are generally related to their varied positions on the slope and their drainage characteristics. These factors produce changes in soil properties from the upper elevation members to the lower elevation members of the catena, and they can also create a sequence of modifications to catenas through time – i.e., a paleo-catena (Figure 9). Thus, a catena is a sequence of soil profiles appearing in regular succession with similar and differing morphological features over a uniform lithology.
Colluvial settings, Figure 9

Hypothetical series of paleo-catena sequences for southern England in the late glacial-Holocene.

The nine-unit land-surface model combines slope aspect, degree of slope, erosion, and soil forming processes (Dalrymple et al., 1968) (Figure 8). The uppermost unit (1) exhibits less than 1° of slope; it is characterized by pedogenic processes with vertical subsurface movement and is often associated with waterlogging or severe denudation. Below that, unit 2 exhibits 2–4° of slope, with both chemical and mechanical eluviation (or removal) by lateral subsurface water movement. Unit 3 is the upper part of the fall face with 35–45° of slope, and it is characterized by bare rock surfaces, sheet erosion, soil creep, and terracette formation. Unit 4 is the lower and steeper part of the fall face with 45–64+ degrees of slope, which is characterized by physical and chemical erosion leading to much bare rock, rock falls, and slides. Unit 5 is the mid-slope zone with 26–35° of slope, surface and subsurface water action, transport by mass movement, terracette formation, and both the removal and accumulation of soil and sediment material. Unit 6 is effectively the colluvial footslope zone, where there is subsurface water action, redeposition of material by mass movement, and some surface wash as colluvium, as well as transport further downslope in the form of hillwash and down valley in the form of alluvium. This colluvium may be laminated, nonlaminated, or massive, and it often accumulates on a buried soil that may or may not be truncated. Unit 7 in the floodplain is characterized by alluvial deposition as well as downstream water movement containing colluvially derived material as alluvium. Unit 8 in the active floodplain exhibits channel avulsion and erosion, bank slump, and fall. Unit 9 is the active channel itself, with bed transport down valley, as well as periodic aggradation and erosion. Obviously, not all units and slope angles will be applicable to every landscape encountered during fieldwork, but the model gives foreknowledge as to where areas of denudation, transformation, and burial may be occurring within a valley complex. As a corollary, it will also provide a good indicator of where buried soils and land surfaces may survive and where buried waterlogged deposits may be found intact for paleo-vegetational and land-use reconstruction. These data can also be used to inform a universal soil loss equation (USLE) to model landscape change through time (Wischmeier et al., 1971; Wischmeier and Smith, 1978; Ayala and French, 2005; French, 2010b) (see below).

Methods of analysis

Two main approaches have been used to study colluvial processes, namely, (1) observation and recording in the field backed up by (2) experimental studies in the field and laboratory. More recently, a much wider repertoire of techniques has emerged for routine use. Good field description and mapping of soil and colluvial deposits is an essential starting point for appraising soil erosion in any landscape. Aerial photography and remote sensing methods such as LIDAR are essential tools (Wilson, 2000; Donoghue, 2001; Bewley et al., 2005), perhaps even geophysical survey and the use of ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to determine sediment thicknesses (Clark, 2000; Gaffney and Gator, 2003) accompanied by systematic augering profiles and test pitting to ascertain depths and characteristics of the erosion/soil complex (French, 2003; French et al., 2007). Test pitting allows bulk sampling from the section face for molluscan studies (Allen, 1992). It also permits block samples to be taken for soil micromorphological analysis (Courty et al., 1989; French, 2003), as well as small bulk sampling for particle size analysis, pH, carbonates, loss on ignition, and magnetic susceptibility (Allen and Macphail, 1987; Canti, 1995; Bertran and Texier, 1999; English Heritage, 2004; Goldberg and Macphail, 2006), while permitting the recording of stone content and its orientation, recovery of artifacts for relative dating, and sampling and sieving to retrieve charcoal for radiocarbon assay (French, 2003; Goldberg and Macphail, 2006). If any clear horizon differences exist, or there are perceptible old land surfaces in evidence, optically stimulated luminescence (or OSL) dating can also be used effectively to provide sequence dating (Grün, 2001). Finally, both laboratory and field experimental data from known present-day landscape scenarios on different soil and geological types need to be compiled and used for comparison as analogues for potential rates of slope erosion under known conditions (Kwaad and Mücher, 1979; Evans, 1992).

Once hillwash has been recognized and recorded in the field as a deposit, micromorphological analysis can then play a role in providing corroborative evidence as part of a mixed method approach (Courty et al., 1989; Canti, 1995; English Heritage, 2004). Different slope processes may generate similar types of micromorphological features, and consequently, it is essential to use a suite of criteria and methodological approaches as itemized above, including macromorphological features and granulometry, for corroboration and a more reliable interpretation (Mücher et al., 2010, p. 37). Moreover, there has not been a large amount of micromorphological research work done on slope deposits (Mücher, 1974; Mücher and Morozova, 1983; Bertran and Texier, 1999). Nonetheless, features such as (1) mixed, juxtaposed, and heterogeneous fabrics (Figure 10a, b), often as pedo-relict aggregates; (2) fresh and/or unoriented subrounded rock fragments; (3) sharply bounded nodules; (4) surface or mud crusts, often fragmented and in all orientations; (5) silty clay coatings; (6) infillings and intercalations in the void/channel space between soil peds (Figure 10ce); (7) fabrics depleted of fine material (Figure 10f); and (8) anthropogenic inclusions are all common indicators of colluvial deposits (Mücher, 1974; Goldberg and Macphail, 2006, 44–45; Fedoroff et al., 2010, 641–645; Kuhn et al., 2010, 228–230; Mücher et al., 2010). Micromorphology can also distinguish quite well between in situ soils and redeposited soils/sediments, and it will recognize fine laminations in colluvial deposits as well as various postdepositional processes. Crucially, micromorphology can identify different types of clay coatings, which can be associated with hillwash processes, often the result of rainsplash impact on bare soil surfaces, such as oriented pure clays (Figure 10c), dusty impure silty clay coatings with weak to moderate striae (Figure 10d), silty clay intercalations (Figure 10e), and dirty or very speckled clay coatings with weak orientation (Bolt et al., 1980; Goldberg and Macphail, 2006, 44–45; Kuhn et al., 2010).
Colluvial settings, Figure 10

Photomicrographs of colluvial features in thin section: (a) Juxtaposed fabrics from the Neolithic paleosol at the Etton causewayed enclosure, Cambridgeshire, England (frame width = 4.5 mm; cross-polarized light). (b) Fine calcitic sandy clay loam with calcitic/gypsic infills from Gatas, Spain (frame width = 4.5 mm; cross-polarized light). (c) Pure clay as channel infills/linings in a pre-Iron Age paleosol under hillwash at Ribat Amran, Yemen (frame width = 4.5 mm; plane-polarized light). (d) Pure to dusty clay linings of the soil fabric of barrow mound 41, Wyke Down, Dorset, England (frame width = 4.5 mm; cross-polarized light). (e) Clay intercalations in a pre-Bronze Age paleosol under hillwash near Stonehenge, Wiltshire, England (frame width = 4.5 mm; plane-polarized light). (f) Bronze Age, depleted, poorly sorted, fine sandy loam hillwash fabric, Barranco de Gatas, Spain (frame width = 4.5 mm; cross-polarized light).

Studies of molluscan assemblages may also be used to help define different localized environments within a valley catchment and to recognize cyclical land-use regimes (Allen, 1988; Allen, 1992). Usually, the molluscan faunas in hillwash reflect arable activity and are generally depleted assemblages with a narrow species range (Bell, 1983). Any temporary hiatuses or standstill horizons can reflect grassland or incipient soil formation (Kerney et al., 1964; Allen, 1992). Occasionally palynological (Scaife, 1984) and micromorphological analyses (Macphail et al., 1990; Macphail, 1992) can aid in the interpretation of land use and activities represented in the colluvial stratigraphy.

Once the formation, age, depths, and spatial extent of colluvial deposits have been determined, and the deposits have been mapped and set within their geological, soil, and vegetational contexts, it then becomes possible to model past and present landscape change. This involves using the tools of geographical information system (GIS) and the universal soil loss equation (USLE) and erodibility factor (K) (Wischmeier et al., 1971; Wischmeier and Smith, 1978) to model erosion in a landscape, as well as dynamic people-landscape interactions in the archaeological record (Kwan and Lee, 2004; Conolly and Lake, 2006; Wainwright, 2008; French, 2010b). For example, in the Troina valley of north-central Sicily, USLE and GIS modeling techniques were used to model the potential impact of Roman agriculture on the erosion record (Ayala and French, 2005). The study suggested that greater clearance for winter pasture land may have been the major driving force causing intensified soil erosion. Other recent studies (Barton et al., 2004; Barton et al.,2010) have effectively employed both computational applications (USLE and GIS) and developed them further using a Geographic Resource Analysis and Support System (GRASS) to model socio-ecological interactions. This type of approach will not only enable visualization of a landscape’s erosion record, but it will also allow (1) comparisons to be made between long-term landscape dynamics and the archaeological record as well as (2) further testing using different landscape settings and different scales of human activity.


Dating of colluvial sequences is rarely easy. Artifacts such as pottery and lithics are often included in eroded soils as hillwash deposits, but of course, they may be inverted or mixed in depositional terms, making them unreliable indicators of the age of any slope deposit. They should certainly not be used on their own without other corroborative data and dating methods. But, it is a different matter if standstill zones with in situ archaeological materials are found within a colluvial sequence, such as the Bronze Age and later sequence at Brean Down (Bell, 1990) (Figure 7a). This type of episodic deposition and standstill sequence allows dates “after which” (terminus post quem) and relative dating of the main phases in the profile based on their archaeological components. In addition, it is sometimes possible to make relative linkages to other regional events recorded in associated environmental, archaeological, and/or historical records that are already dated. For example, Nile flood records in pharaonic Egypt (Adamson et al., 1980; Brown, 1997, 6–7), extreme weather conditions such as those occurring during the Little Ice Age of northwestern Europe in the AD 1500s (Lamb, 1979), the huge eruption of Santorini in the Bronze Age (c. 1625–1645) (Aitken et al., 1988), biostratigraphic correlation with well-dated pollen records in the study area (Brown 1997, 47), and tree-ring series and ice core sequences can provide proxy dated records of major erosive and climatic events for some parts of the world.

Radiocarbon dating is an ideal method (Taylor, 2001), but it depends upon an organic component – such as charcoal, wood, bone, or other humic substance – being incorporated within the eroded material or stratified within any standstill horizons. There might nevertheless still be problems related to how the organic matter selected for dating was introduced into the eroded sediments, and uncontrolled taphonomic processes could produce inverted or otherwise erroneous dates. The reliability of any dated sequence is improved by obtaining numerous dates. For example, in the Dhamar Highlands of Yemen, sets of radiocarbon dates from the fifth millennium BC were obtained from the humic content of buried soils associated with several pre- and post-Neolithic hillwash sequences (Wilkinson, 2005), and in the central Rio Puerco valley of New Mexico, some 125 radiocarbon dates were obtained from charcoal in one reach of the Rio Puerco and its associated tributary Arroyo Tapia in order to date the 11 m thick colluvial/alluvial/buried soil sequence from about 5750 BC to the present (French et al., 2009).

Luminescence dating is another excellent technique, now increasingly being used because it yields much better accuracy than it has previously and is widely applicable (Aitken, 1997; Grün, 2001). Thermoluminescence dating (or TL) may be used on pottery and burnt flint, and optically stimulated luminescence (or OSL) works well for sedimentary sequences, especially where there are clear contacts of eroded material with buried land surfaces. For example, early Neolithic TL dates were obtained from pottery in hillwash deposits associated with two Neolithic sites in the Troina valley of north-central Sicily, and Bronze Age, Roman, and late medieval OSL dates were determined from the various stop/start alluvial profiles in the associated river floodplain (Ayala and French, 2005; R. Bailey, pers. comm.). Recent work on the Channel Island of Herm has successfully employed OSL dating techniques to chart the episodic deposition of windblown sands between about 1200 BC and AD 1600 on buried soils of Neolithic age (Bailiff et al., 2014; Scarre and French 2013).

In sum, the combination of dated archaeological associations and environmental sequences and the use of radiocarbon and/or OSL techniques are essential tools with which to date colluvial sequences. OSL dating should revolutionize future understanding of dynamic landscape change where there are repeated episodes of soil erosion and deposition.

Importance and conclusion

Colluvial deposits and the land surfaces and paleosols that they bury represent valuable resources for archaeological, paleoenvironmental, and landscape interpretation. They inform us not only about landscape development and land use in the past but also (1) the variability of human and natural impacts on valley systems, (2) the links between past and current processes of land degradation, and (3) possibly even associated climate change. The use of new techniques, such as micromorphology, OSL dating, and GIS-based modeling tools, is beginning to transform our understanding of the chronology of many colluvial sequences, as well as our ability to relate these deposits to human-land interactions through time.




I would like to thank Drs Mike Allen and Richard Macphail and Professor Paul Goldberg for permission to use Figure 1 and Professor Martin Bell for Figure 7a.


  1. Adamson, D. A., Gasse, F., Street, F. A., and Williams, M. A. J., 1980. Late Quaternary history of the Nile. Nature, 288(5786), 50–55.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Aitken, M. J., 1997. Luminescence dating. In Taylor, R. E., and Aitken, M. J. (eds.), Chronometric Dating in Archaeology. New York: Plenum, pp. 183–216.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Aitken, M. J., Michael, H. N., Betancourt, P. P., and Warren, P. M., 1988. The Thera eruption: continuing discussion of the dating. Archaeometry, 30(1), 165–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Allen, M. J., 1988. Archaeological and environmental aspects of colluviation in south-east England. In Groenman-van Waateringe, W., and Robinson, M. (eds.), Man-Made Soils. Oxford: British Archaeological Reports. International Series, Vol. 410, pp. 67–92.Google Scholar
  5. Allen, M. J., 1992. Products of erosion and the prehistoric land use of the Wessex Chalk. In Bell, M. G., and Boardman, J. (eds.), Past and Present Soil Erosion. Oxford: Oxbow. Oxbow Monograph, Vol. 22, pp. 37–52.Google Scholar
  6. Allen, M. J., and Macphail, R. I., 1987. Micromorphology and magnetic susceptibility studies: their combined role in interpreting archaeological soils and sediments. In Fedoroff, N., Bresson, L.-M., and Courty, M.-A. (eds.), Micromorphologie des sols/Soil Micromorphology. Plaisir: Association Française pour l’Etude du Sol, pp. 669–676.Google Scholar
  7. Ayala, G., and French, C., 2005. Erosion modeling of past land-use practices in the Fiume di Sotto di Troina valley, north-central Sicily. Geoarchaeology, 20(2), 149–167.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bailiff, I. K., French, C., and Scarre, C. 2014. Application of luminescence dating and geomorphological analysis to the study of landscape evolution, settlement and climate change on the Channel island of Herm. Journal of Archaeological Science, 41, 890–903.Google Scholar
  9. Barton, C. M., Bernabeu, J., Aura, J. E., Garcia, O., Schmich, S., and Molina, L., 2004. Long-term socioecology and contingent landscapes. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 11(3), 253–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Barton, C. M., Ullah, I. I., and Mitasova, H., 2010. Computational modeling and Neolithic socioecological dynamics: a case study from Southwest Asia. American Antiquity, 75(2), 364–386.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bell, M. G., 1983. Valley sediments as evidence of prehistoric land-use on the South Downs. Proceedings of the Prehistoric Society, 49, 119–150.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Bell, M. G., 1990. Brean Down Excavations 1983–1987. London: English Heritage. Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission Archaeological Report, Vol. 15.Google Scholar
  13. Bell, M. G., 1992. The prehistory of soil erosion. In Bell, M. G., and Boardman, J. (eds.), Past and Present Soil Erosion. Oxford: Oxbow. Oxbow Monograph, Vol. 22, pp. 21–36.Google Scholar
  14. Bell, M. G., and Boardman, J. (eds.), 1992. Past and Present Soil Erosion. Oxford: Oxbow. Oxbow Monograph, Vol. 22.Google Scholar
  15. Bertran, P., and Texier, J.-P., 1999. Facies and microfacies of slope deposits. Catena, 35(2–4), 99–121.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bewley, R. H., Crutchley, S. P., and Shell, C. A., 2005. New light on an ancient landscape: lidar survey in the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. Antiquity, 79(305), 636–647.Google Scholar
  17. Boardman, J., 1992. Current erosion on the South Downs: implications for the past. In Bell, M. G., and Boardman, J. (eds.), Past and Present Soil Erosion. Oxford: Oxbow. Oxbow Monograph, Vol. 22, pp. 9–19.Google Scholar
  18. Bolt, A. J. J., Mücher, H. J., Sevink, J., and Verstraten, J. M., 1980. A study on loess-derived colluvia in southern Limbourg (The Netherlands). Netherlands Journal of Agricultural Science, 28(2), 110–126.Google Scholar
  19. Brown, A. G., 1997. Alluvial Geoarchaeology: Floodplain Archaeology and Environmental Change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Burton, R. G. O., 1981. Soils in Cambridgeshire II. Harpenden: Soil Survey. Soil Survey Record No. 69.Google Scholar
  21. Butzer, K. W., 1982. Archaeology as Human Ecology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Canti, M. G., 1995. A mixed-method approach to geoarchaeological analysis. In Barham, A. J., and Macphail, R. I. (eds.), Archaeological Sediments and Soils: Analysis, Interpretation and Management. London: Institute of Archaeology, University College, London, pp. 183–190.Google Scholar
  23. Carver, M. O. H., 1998. Sutton Hoo: Burial Ground of Kings? London: British Museum Press.Google Scholar
  24. Castro, P. V., Chapman, R. W., Gili, S., Lull, V., Micó, R., Rihuete, C., Risch, R., and Sanahuja, M. E., 1999. Agricultural production and social change in the Bronze Age of southeast Spain: the Gatas Project. Antiquity, 73(282), 846–856.Google Scholar
  25. Clark, A. J., 2000. Seeing Beneath the Soil: Prospecting Methods in Archaeology, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  26. Conolly, J., and Lake, M. W., 2006. Geographical Information Systems in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Cambridge Manuals in Archaeology.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Courty, M.-A., Goldberg, P., and Macphail, R. I., 1989. Soils and Micromorphology in Archaeology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  28. Dalrymple, J. B., Blong, R. J., and Conacher, A. J., 1968. A hypothetical nine unit landsurface model. Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie, 12, 60–76.Google Scholar
  29. Donoghue, D. N. M., 2001. Remote sensing. In Brothwell, D. R., and Pollard, A. M. (eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. Chichester: Wiley, pp. 555–563.Google Scholar
  30. English Heritage, 2004. Geoarchaeology: Using Earth Sciences to Understand the Archaeological Record. Swindon: English Heritage.Google Scholar
  31. Evans, J. G., 1972. Land Snails in Archaeology. London: Seminar Press.Google Scholar
  32. Evans, R., 1992. Erosion in England and Wales – the present the key to the past. In Bell, M. G., and Boardman, J. (eds.), Past and Present Soil Erosion. Oxford: Oxbow. Oxbow Monograph, Vol. 22, pp. 53–66.Google Scholar
  33. Farmer, E. E., 1973. Relative detachability of soil particles by simulated rainfall. Soil Science Society of America Journal, 37(4), 629–633.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Fedoroff, N., Courty, M.-A., and Guo, Z., 2010. Palaeosoils and relict soils. In Stoops, G., Marcelino, V., and Mees, F. (eds.), Interpretation of Micromorphological Features of Soils and Regoliths. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 623–662.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. French, C. A. I., 2003. Geoarchaeology in Action: Studies in Soil Micromorphology and Landscape Evolution. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  36. French, C. A. I., 2005. Micromorphological studies. In Carver, M. O. H., and Sutton, H. (eds.), A Seventh-Century Princely Burial Ground and Its Context. London: The British Museum Press, pp. 384–389. 363–379.Google Scholar
  37. French, C. A. I., 2010a. The palaeo-environments of Bronze Age Europe. In Earle, T., and Kristiansen, K. (eds.), Organizing Bronze Age Societies: The Mediterranean, Central Europe, and Scandinavia Compared. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 34–56.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. French, C. A. I., 2010b. People, society, and landscapes. Science, 328(5977), 443–444.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. French, C. A. I., Passmore, D., and Schulte, L., 1998. Geomorphology and edaphic factors. In Castro, P. V., Chapman, R. W., Gili, S., Lull, V., Micó, R., Rihuete, C., Risch, R., and Sanahuja, M. E. (eds.), Aguas Project: Palaeoclimatic Reconstruction and the Dynamics of Human Settlement and Land Use in the Area of the Middle Aguas (Almería), in the South-East of the Iberian Peninsula. Luxembourg: European Commission, pp. 45–52.Google Scholar
  40. French, C. A. I., Lewis, H., Allen, M. J., Green, M., Scaife, R., and Gardiner, J., 2007. Prehistoric Landscape Development and Human Impact in the Upper Allen Valley, Cranborne Chase, Dorset. Cambridge: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.Google Scholar
  41. French, C. A. I., Periman, R., Cummings, L. S., Hall, S., Goodman-Elgar, M., and Boreham, J., 2009. Holocene alluvial sequences, cumulic soils and fire signatures in the middle Rio Puerco basin at Guadalupe Ruin, New Mexico. Geoarchaeology, 24(5), 638–676.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. French, C. A. I., Scaife, R. G., Allen, M. J., Pearson, M. P., Pollard, J., Richards, C., Thomas, J., and Welham, K., 2012. Durrington Walls to West Amesbury by way of Stonehenge: a major transformation of the Holocene landscape. Antiquaries Journal, 92, 1–36.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Gaffney, C. F., and Gator, J., 2003. Revealing the Buried Past: Geophysics for Archaeologists. Stroud: Tempus.Google Scholar
  44. Goldberg, P., and Macphail, R. I., 2006. Practical and Theoretical Geoarchaeology. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  45. Grün, R., 2001. Trapped charge dating (ESR, TL, OSL). In Brothwell, D. R., and Pollard, A. M. (eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. Chichester: Wiley, pp. 47–62.Google Scholar
  46. Horton, R. E., 1945. Erosional development of streams and their drainage basins; a hydrophysical approach to quantitative morphology. Bulletin of the Geological Society of America, 56(3), 275–370.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Imeson, A. C., Kwaad, F. J. P. M., and Mücher, H. J., 1980. Hillslope processes and deposits in forested areas of Luxembourg. In Cullingford, R. A., Davidson, D. A., and Lewin, J. (eds.), Timescales in Geomorphology. Chichester: Wiley, pp. 31–42.Google Scholar
  48. Kerney, M. P., Brown, E. H., and Chandler, T. J., 1964. The Late-Glacial and Post-Glacial history of the chalk escarpment near Brook, Kent. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Series B, Biological Sciences, 248(745), 135–204.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Kirkby, M. J., 1969. Erosion by water on hillslopes. In Chorley, R. J. (ed.), Water, Earth and Man. London: Methuen, pp. 229–238.Google Scholar
  50. Kühn, P., Aguilar, J., and Miedema, R., 2010. Textural pedofeatures and related horizons. In Stoops, G., Marcelino, V., and Mees, F. (eds.), Interpretation of Micromorphological Features of Soils and Regoliths. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 217–250.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Kwaad, F. J. P. M., and Mücher, H. J., 1979. The evolution of soils and slope deposits in the Luxembourg Ardennes near Wiltz. Geoderma, 17(1), 1–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Kwan, M.-P., and Lee, J., 2004. Geovisualization of human activity patterns using 3D GIS: a time-geographic approach. In Goodchild, M. F., and Janelle, D. G. (eds.), Spatially Integrated Social Science. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 48–66.Google Scholar
  53. Lamb, H. H., 1979. Climatic variation and changes in the wind and oceanic circulation: the Little Ice Age in the northeast Atlantic. Quaternary Research, 11(1), 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Langbein, W. B., and Schumm, S. A., 1958. Yield of sediment in relation to mean annual precipitation. Transactions of the American Geophysical Union, 39(6), 1076–1084.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Limbrey, S., 1975. Soil Science and Archaeology. London: Academic.Google Scholar
  56. Macphail, R. I., 1992. Soil micromorphological evidence of ancient soil erosion. In Bell, M. G., and Boardman, J. (eds.), Past and Present Soil Erosion. Oxford: Oxbow. Oxbow Monograph, Vol. 22, pp. 197–215.Google Scholar
  57. Macphail, R. I., Courty, M.-A., and Gebhardt, A., 1990. Soil micromorphological evidence of early agriculture in north-west Europe. World Archaeology, 22(1), 53–69.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Morgan, R. P. C., 1979. Soil Erosion. London: Longman.Google Scholar
  59. Moseley, M. P., 1973. Rainsplash and the convexity of badland divides. Zeitschrift für Geomorphologie Supplementband, 18, 10–25.Google Scholar
  60. Mücher, H. J., 1974. Micromorphology of slope deposits: the necessity of a classification. In Rutherford, G. K. (ed.), Soil Microscopy. Kingston: The Limestone Press, pp. 553–566.Google Scholar
  61. Mücher, H. J., and Morozova, T. D., 1983. The application of soil micromorphology in Quaternary geology and geomorphology. In Bullock, P., and Murphy, C. P. (eds.), Soil Micromorphology. Berkhamsted: A. B. Academic Publishers, pp. 151–194.Google Scholar
  62. Mücher, H. J., van Steijn, H., and Kwaad, F., 2010. Colluvial and mass wasting deposits. In Stoops, G., Marcelino, V., and Mees, F. (eds.), Interpretation of Micromorphological Features of Soils and Regoliths. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 37–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  63. Roose, E. J., 1970. Importance relative de l’érosion, du drainage oblique et vertical dans la pédogenèse actuelle d’un sol ferrallitique de moyenne Côte d’Ivoire. Cahiers ORSTROM, série Pedologie, 8(4), 469–482.Google Scholar
  64. Scaife, R. G., 1984. Gallibury Down, Isle of Wight – Pollen Analysis of a Bronze Age Downland Palaeosol. London: English Heritage. Ancient Monuments Laboratory Report, Vol. 4240.Google Scholar
  65. Scarre, C., and French, C. A. I., 2013. The palaeogeography and Neolithic archaeology of Herm in the Channel Islands. Journal of Field Archaeology, 38(1), 4–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Selby, M. J., 1993. Hillslope Materials and Processes, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  67. Statham, I., 1979. Earth Surface Sediment Transport. Oxford: Clarendon.Google Scholar
  68. Statham, I., 1990. Slope processes. In Goudie, A. (ed.), Geomorphological Techniques, 2nd edn. London: Unwin Hyman, pp. 225–259.Google Scholar
  69. Taylor, R. E., 2001. Radiocarbon dating. In Brothwell, D. R., and Pollard, A. M. (eds.), Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. Chichester: Wiley, pp. 23–34.Google Scholar
  70. Thornes, J. B., and Gilman, P., 1983. Potential and actual erosion around archaeological sites in southeast Spain. In de Ploey, J. (ed.), Rainfall Simulation, Runoff and Soil Erosion. Cremlingen: Catena Verlag. Catena Supplement, Vol. 4, pp. 91–113.Google Scholar
  71. Wainwright, J., 2008. Can modelling enable us to understand the rôle of humans in landscape evolution? Geoforum, 39(2), 659–674.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Waters, M. R., 1992. Principles of Geoarchaeology: A North American Perspective. Tuscon: The University of Arizona Press.Google Scholar
  73. Wilkinson, T. J., 2005. Soil erosion and valley fills in the Yemen Highlands and southern Turkey: integrating settlement, geoarchaeology, and climate change. Geoarchaeology, 20(2), 169–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  74. Wilson, D. R., 2000. Air Photo Interpretation for Archaeologists. Stroud: Tempus.Google Scholar
  75. Wischmeier, W. H., and Smith, D. D., 1978. Predicting Rainfall Erosion Losses: A Guide to Conservation Planning. Washington, DC: US Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Handbook, Vol. 537.Google Scholar
  76. Wischmeier, W. H., Johnson, C. B., and Cross, B. V., 1971. A soil erodibility nomograph for farmland and construction sites. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 26(5), 189–193.Google Scholar
  77. Wolman, M. G., 1967. A cycle of sedimentation and erosion in urban river channels. Geografiska Annaler Series A, Physical Geography, 49(2–4), 385–395.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Young, A., 1969. Present rate of land erosion. Nature, 224(5222), 851–852.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Archaeology and AnthropologyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK