Umhlatuzana Rock Shelter Excavation 2018

My Ph.D. research within the “Finding resolution for the Middle to Later Stone Age transition in South Africa” project discusses scientific debates about the South African archaeology during the Pleistocene. The project is reexamining two archaeological sites located in KwaZulu-Natal (eastern South Africa), the Shongweni and Umhlatuzana rock shelters, both of which demonstrate occupational deposits during the Middle Stone Age to Later Stone Age transition. By determining the site formation processes, the geoarchaeological study aims to answer questions raised in relation to the archaeological contexts of the individual sites.

This blog entry shortly describes the fieldwork strategies we followed during the Umhlatuzana excavation (June-August 2018). A second blog post will follow describing the micromorphological sampling process.

Feedback, comments, and thoughts are highly welcomed.


The fieldwork strategies:

Step 1: Initial profile description

The first step was to identify and describe stratigraphic layers on the profile of the previous excavation. After producing an archaeological drawing, we compared our observations to the stratigraphic descriptions of the original excavation (Kaplan, 1990). We identified the units that were not clearly defined and established site-specific research questions.

Step 2: Excavation

The second step was to start excavating the stratigraphic layers (Single Context Excavation System) while keeping track of sediment changes. We excavated in 25×25 cm squares using ~2cm spits and documenting the relative location of finds larger than 2cm using a Robotic Total Station.

Step 3: Profile description

After the excavation, we re-identified the stratigraphic layers and units. This revised stratigraphic description was based both on the initial profile and the observations made along the excavation. Archaeological drawings of the new sections were produced.  

Step 4: Sampling Strategy

Based on the stratigraphic description we established the sampling strategies for chronological (OSL, radiocarbon), micromorphological, phytolith, and geochemical analyses. We focused on sampling specific sections that addressed our research questions. These sections included the MSA-LSA transitional deposits, poorly understood stratigraphic layers, and features with anthropogenic (hearths) or biological (bioturbation) input.


Kaplan, J. The Umhlatuzana Rock Shelter sequence: 100 000 years of Stone Age history. Southern African Humanities. 2, (1), 1-94.

Reconstructing Archaeological Sites: Understanding the Geoarchaeological Matrix

A new geoarchaeological book entitled Reconstructing Archaeological Sites: Understanding the Geoarchaeological Matrix was released today by Dr. Panagiotis Karkanas and Dr. Paul Goldberg. The book explores the various aspects of archaeological site formation and depositional processes providing both a theoretical background and practical approaches to the subject.

Chapter 1 examines the principles of site formation processes presenting the type of events that can affect an archaeological site before during and after its occupation like soil formation procedures and post-depositional events. Chapter 2 studies natural sedimental processes in sites (structures, mass movements, bioturbation etc.) while Chapter 3 focuses on various types of anthropogenic sediments (burnt and organic remains, construction material etc.). Chapter 4 examines the principles and importance of site stratigraphy by analyzing and defining stratigraphic units and their context. The next two chapters are studying the different types of archaeological sites, with Chapter 5 focusing on non-architectural sites (open air vs cave sites) and Chapter 6 on architectural sites (roofed and unroofed, streets, house pits). Finally, Chapter 7 provides more practical information on field techniques like drawings, photography, sampling strategies, number and size of samples as well as micromorphological and microarchaeological sampling.

The book is addressed to both geoarchaeologists and archaeologists who want to study archaeological site stratigraphy. It provides a complete guide for understanding the geoarchaeological matrix and how deposits can be organized in time and space.


San Rock Art in Drakensberg, SA

I was lucky enough to visit three impressive San Rock Art Sites in the World Heritage uKhahlamba- Drakensberg Park in South Africa. The paintings were created by indigenous San peoples, hunter-gatherers who lived in the area for thousands of years until their encounter with Zulu tribes and white settlers from Europe. After being forced to withdraw from the area, San culture disappeared from the Drakensberg at the end of the 19th century leaving behind their legacy through astonishing rock art in rock shelters and caves.


The paintings mainly represent hunters, animals, shamans and half human, half animal hybrids. There are 600 rock art sites documented in the Drakensberg mountains, some of which are open to the public, making it a unique destination to visit.




First micromorphology sample of the season!

We are currently in South Africa, excavating the Umhlatuzana Rockshelter site in Kwazulu-Natal.  Although the full micromorphological sampling will be done at the end of the excavation, I could not resist and sampled an impressive hearth feature in the top Holocene layers.  You can see the nice stratigraphy of the hearth and the transition from organic-rich to ash layers. The sediments are highly bioturbated with animal burrows visible to the naked eye.

It was also a great opportunity to test out how Kubiena sampling tins work in our context. The sampling was successful with a small, almost inevitable, profile collapse.


Bonus video

Geoarchaeologist Dr. Karkanas extracting a micromorphological sample for the study of paleosols in Hungary’s Koros River Valley

Terra Rossa vs red sediments

Terra rossa is a soil type produced after the weathering of limestone and is quite common across the Mediterranean region. Because of its name, the red soil, people tend to generalize the terra rossa term and use it for every quaternary red clayish deposit regardless of the processes apply to soil formation.

In geoarchaeology it is very important to distinguish red sediments from paleosols as the different formation processes between them result to different information and, thus, archaeological interpretation. The necessity for a clear definition when it comes to paleosols has been stressed out from very early by Valentine and Dalrymple (1976). As it has been pointed out by van Andel (1998), paleosols represent useful stratigraphic tools: former land surfaces possibly relating with human activity. On the other hand, red sediments are ‘the oxidized residue of limestone weathering that once blanketed large regions where limestone dominates the bedrock’ (van Andel 1998, 361). However, van Andel makes a further distinction for terra rossa soils: the primary terra rossa and the re-deposited terra rossa on karst environment. Due to the existing climate, soil formation on limestone bedrocks within the Mediterranean area is very slow; because of slope wash, it is very difficult for the soil to remain in situ. In the case of a karstic peneplain, this primary terra rossa can be captured and form deposits of several meters; on this redeposited sediment, new soils can be formed.

terra rossa

The figure shows the evolution of loutses and poljes on a karstic peneplain (van Andel 1998, 378): ‘Time 1: Terra rossa mantle of a karstic peneplain washes into shallow surface depressions of the karst called loutses. Time 2: Compressive tectonics creates fault-bound, elongated basins of internal drainage called poljes which fill with redeposited terra rossa. Time 3: Continued uplift raises polje and streams cut into the deposits by headward erosion’.


But why do these matter?


The importance of terra rossa in archaeology lies to the fact that it is associated with many prehistoric sites in the Mediterranean area. Dating the aeolian silt that is included in the redeposited terra rossa with luminescence methods can also be possible (van Andel 1998). The type of formation associated with the archaeological finds will include different environmental information: in the case of primary terra rossa the soil were most probable exposed for a long time which indicates a low-resources dry environment. On the other hand, redeposited terra rossa yields wet environment abundant in food resources which could be the reason for an extensive human presence.




Valentine, K. W., Dalrymple, J., 1976. Quaternary Buried Paleosols: A Critical Review. Quaternary Research, 6,209-222.

van Andel, T., 1998, Paleosols, Red Sediments, and the Old Stone Age in Greece. Geoarchaeology: An International Journal, 13/4, 361–390.

New Geoarchaeology blog

Hello and welcome to this sparkling new blog!

My name is Irini and I am a PhD student in the university of Leiden working on the project Finding resolution for the Middle to Later Stone Age transition in South Africa. My fields of interests include geoarchaeology, palaeoecology, landscape archaeology and Site Formation Processes using various techniques like micromorphology, sedimentology and stratigraphy.

I am planning to blog about things related to geoarchaeology, our project’s fieldwork, ongoing activities, recent publications and whatever else I can think of.

Lets see how all this will turn out!

Stratigraphic investigations during the Marathousa 1 excavation in 2014 (Photo by VT)