Posted by: signalhillarchaeology | August 5, 2009

Paging Dr. Munsell–What Colour is this Dirt, Anyhow?!?

As we draw to the close of our last (last!! *where* did the time go, exactly?!?) week of digging, we’re starting to finish excavation and begin to map what we’ve excavated. This will be the first of several posts that explain the fun (by which I mean frustrations) of mapping.  Here is Andrew’s perspective.

As field school draws to a close Team 3, of which I count myself among, has
spent the past two days drawing stratigraphic profile maps of the trench we
affectionately refer to as 1A51E.

Students must map, photograph and describe the layers of soil that they see in this excavation trench. Quick: second layer from the top: is it orangey brown or brownish orange?

Students must map, photograph and describe the layers of soil that they see in this excavation trench. Quick: second layer from the top: is it orangey brown or brownish orange?

Included alongside each of these maps are
brief descriptions about each stratigraphic layer.

We note the inclusions, soil texture, colour and so on.

When it is time to describe the colour of the soil we turn to a small blue book with the word Munsell inscribed on the cover. Inside are pages of different soil colours, all of which are assigned specific numbers and descriptions such as “dark greyish brown” or “black”.

One is to take a small sample of the soil from the particular layer which they are identifying and match to the corresponding colour in the Munsell book.

(Amanda notes: my personal favourite are those soils named Gley. Gley?!? Really?!?!! I know, I know, gley is a technical term used to describe a specific type of soil, often waterlogged and grey in colour…

A little reading reveals the root of the word is Ukrainian– but that doesn’t mean I have any less trouble remembering to write down ‘gley’ instead of ‘grey’. You see? Munsell charts can be frustrating for those of us who have used them for years, too… end Amanda’s rant)

As we are all fairly new at this Munsell business, my team mate Susan and I were both attempting to match the different layers and then compare notes.

Trying to characterize the colour of soil by comparing it to a series of colour swatches in a Munsell book. In theory, it's a tool that allows us to standardize our soil description terminology... in practice? You usually want to hurl it far, far away.

Trying to characterize the colour of soil by comparing it to a series of colour swatches in a Munsell book. In theory, it's a tool that allows us to standardize our soil description terminology... in practice? Students usually want to hurl it far, far away.

While digging 1A51E there was one layer we called the orange layer (see Aaron’s July 21st post for further details). When it came to time to describe this orange layer I found that it matched the colour Munsell would call “yellowish red”. Susan however had chosen “reddish yellow”.

Imagine a painter who needed specific colour for his painting. He could mix red
paint with yellow. Or he could mix yellow paint with red. Either way he would
eventually obtain his desired goal of orange.

Orange however is not a colour to be found in the Munsell book. If this metaphorical painter lived in world governed by the laws of the Munsell colour system he would find himself stuck in a state of permanent limbo, and his painting would remain perpetually unfinished.

Luckily we don’t live in a such a world. Yellowish red it is.

—Andrew Holmes (Student)

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Responses

  1. Hey Amanda, when I first heard of gley and what it was I thought the word was an amalgam of grey and clay, somehow describing both the colour and the texture. (not that I’m sure that’s the texture but, that’s just the explanation my head came up with)

  2. After spending weeks digging up sediments in the deserts of SW USA a few years back, I can only empathize. My friend Alex and I eventually decided that everything was simply buff, enabling us to talk about doing fieldwork in the buff. This joke may seem very low quality, but it just about kept us on the right side of Munsell-induced madness.

    • Liam, you’re completely correct– Munsell-related madness provokes all kinds of reactions. In Newfoundland, we (sadly) don’t get to make ‘buff’ jokes about sediment colour too often… we’re generally on the darker end of the spectrum, trying to find 28 different ways of trying to describe dark brown dirt– in exasperation I’ve resorted to using words like ‘puce’ and ‘burnt sienna’ and ‘mahogany’, just to mix things up a bit 😉


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