Methods of soil P analysis in archaeology

Vance T. Holliday, William G. Gartner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

278 Scopus citations


Phosphorus (P) is unique among the elements in being a sensitive and persistent indicator of human activity. It has long been of interest to archaeologists because of its potential to inform them about the presence of past human occupation and to offer clues regarding the type and intensity of human activity. A wide variety of methods have been developed in both soil science and in archaeology to extract and measure soil P, resulting in a tremendous amount of data and a wide array of interpretations, but also considerable confusion over appropriateness of methods and terminology. The primary purpose of this paper is to address these issues by clarifying soil P analyses. Anthropogenic additions of phosphorus to the soil come from human refuse and waste, burials, the products of animal husbandry in barns, pens, and on livestock paths, or intentional enrichment from soil fertilizer. Once added to the soil, phosphorus in its common form as phosphate is stable and generally immobile in soils. Soil P comes in many forms, organized for the purposes of this paper on the basis of extraction and measurement procedures as (1) extraction for available P (Pav); (2) portable field techniques (the spot test or ring test); (3) chemical digestion of a soil sample for total P (Ptot); (4) extractions of inorganic P (Pin) for fractionation studies and extractions to look at individual compounds of P; (5) measurements of organic P (Porg); and (6) extractions for total elemental analysis. To compare the suitability of various extractants as the "best" indicator of human input and activity we subjected samples from three very different archaeological sites (Lubbock Lake, TX; Hulburt Creek, IA; British Camp, WA) to four methods of soil P extraction: perchloric acid digestion (Ptot), sulfuric-nitric acid extraction Ptot), hydrochloric acid extraction after ignition (Pin), and citric acid extraction (Pav). Further, methods of measurement were compared via colorimetry vs. Inductively Coupled Plasma (ICP) spectrometry, and the two methods of supposed "total P" were both measured via ICP. In general, the stronger extractants yielded more soil P, but the result are not clear-cut. Likely variables include the intensity of occupation, nature of the parent material, and postdepositional weathering (e.g., the addition of dust).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)301-333
Number of pages33
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2007


  • British Camp site
  • Hulburt Creek site
  • Lubbock Lake site
  • Phosphate
  • Soil phosphorus

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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