Tephra, tephrochronology and archaeology: a (re-)view from Northern Europe

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Volcanic eruptions are often, although by no means always, associated with a profuse output of fine pyroclastic material, tephra. While residence time in the atmosphere of the very finest of these particles can be substantial, the deposition of the bulk of volcanic ejecta can be considered instantaneous from a geological, archaeological, and evolutionary perspective. Often these volcanic products can be identified by various chemical and non-chemical means and if the eruption date is known, the occurrence of tephra from a given eruption in stratigraphic sequences provides a powerful means of dating such deposits, or of refining available dating schemes. Furthermore, the occurrence of tephra from the same eruption across sites, regions and in various types of depositional contexts (ice-cores, terrestrial, marine, cultural) holds the potential of linking and thus elucidating the tempi and causes of both environmental and cultural change. Recent years have seen considerable advances in tephrochronology studies, especially regarding the detection of macroscopically invisible micro- or cryptotephras. In parallel with the possibility of detecting hitherto invisible tephras over vastly increased areas, the overall potential of tephrochronology as a major dating tool for both palaeoenvironmental scientists and archaeologists is greatly expanded. The aim of this paper is not to be comprehensive, but to provide a brief and timely general review of tephra studies and their methodologies, and to make a case for better linking tephra research to archaeology, all from a primarily Scandinavian perspective. We argue that the identification of tephra in archaeological sediments should, in due time, become as routine as other types of geo-archaeological analyses, especially given that tephra cannot only act as a useful chronostratigraphic marker, but can also play a role in changing patterns of environmental and cultural change at the level of the site or the region. In order to move towards such integration, a series of methodological challenges have to be met. We outline some of these, and provide pointers as to how and where tephrochronologists and archaeologists can work together more closely.
Original languageEnglish
JournalHeritage Science
Volume1
Issue number15
Number of pages17
ISSN2050-7445
DOIs
StatePublished - 2013

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