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Getting data from strata

05 November 2023

Mycenae grave circle, c.1966
Photographer M.K. Steven35mm slide
James Logie Mermorial Collection archives

Archaeological sites are a little like layer cakes, though perhaps not ones you would want to eat. Sites are often made up of many layers of remains, one on top of the other, each one created by a different group of people. Each layer, or ‘strata’, might have a different soil colour or texture, and contain different objects relating to a specific period of time. Stratigraphy is the study of cultural remains in layers.


In an ancient Classical site, an archaeologist might discover a Greek rubbish pit under a Roman road, and both of these may be under a modern structure. This is very useful when the different layers are well defined, as the deepest layer is usually thought to be the oldest. However, it can present a great challenge when layers have been broken through or become mixed up. It is also one of the reasons archaeologists have to be very careful not to drop objects they find into a different layer.

Fossil ammonite
Cretaceous period, approximately 65 million years old
On loan from the University of Canterbury School of Geological Sciences Rock Collection

Discovering evidence of the past is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Greeks and Romans believed their world was shaped by their gods and heroes, and found evidence of this in the land around them. They wrote about finding fossils like this ammonite, and sometimes recognised them as evidence of natural events. The Greek historian Herodotus recorded seeing shells on mountainsides in Egypt, and realised that the sea must have once covered that land.


Ammonite, UC School of Geological Sciences

Sometimes however, when ancient bones were uncovered, they were taken to be evidence of the giants and heroes that once strode the earth. This may explain why the Roman writer Philostratus of Lemnos wrote that the grave of the hero Ajax held a skeleton that was 16 feet tall. This would have made Ajax about the same height as a small giraffe.

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