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5.2: Activity 1 - Formation Processes- What Survives?

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    Jess Whalen, Mt. San Jacinto College

    Part 1. Preservation by Matrix and Climate

    Whether and how material remains are preserved depends on the condition of (1) the matrix material that surrounds the object (usually soil or sediment) and (2) the regional and local climate.

    Your instructor will assign you one or more case studies presenting a particular set of conditions in terms of the climate (dry, wet, or cold) and the matrix (an acidic or non-acidic soil for example). Use the case study you are assigned to fill in as much of the following chart as possible. No single case study will give you all of the information—some will tell you what is preserved but not what is destroyed and vice-versa. Leave room in each box as you fill it out since additional case studies will contribute additional information. Sharing your answers with the class will also help you complete the chart and build a good understanding of formation processes and preservation conditions.

    Climate type Materials preserved Materials destroyed

















    Matrix type Materials preserved Materials destroyed

    Acidic soils
    (including waterlogged acidic soils)






    Non-acidic or alkaline soils
    (including chalk soils and waterlogged non-acidic soils)











    Copper in the soil





    Under salty water






    Part 2. Card Activity

    Your instructor will assign a card to you that describes artifacts found in a single context.

    1. Your assigned card: ________
    2. Using the chart you completed in Part 1, determine the environment or climate in which this material was recovered. Do not worry about the species of plants and animals yet. First identify the likely matrix given the artifacts that survived.




    1. Describe the evidence that led you to your conclusions about the climate.




    1. Are there other preservation conditions in which these artifacts could have survived? Why or why not?




    1. What matrix type / soil conditions would preserve your find (there may be more than one)?




    1. Describe the evidence that led you to your conclusions about the matrix.



    Next, identify colleagues in the classroom whose finds (on the cards) would come from the same context (climate and matrix) as yours. Check with them to determine whether your plant and animal species are found in the same part of the world using any technology available to you. Keep in mind that species’ ranges can be extensive. If your plant and animal species are found in the same approximate region of the same continent, you might have a match.

    1. List the class members whose cards presented conditions similar to yours and the conditions, plants, and animals on their cards.




    1. List the archaeological evidence (the artifacts and descriptions) presented by all of the cards in your group.




    1. Taking all of your group’s materials together, complete the following chart.
    Level of certainty Information about the culture: activity at this site or information about the people who used these materials How might these remains have come to be left or discarded here?
    What you know for sure    
    What you can surmise    

    What is possible








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