Potentials and limitations for the identification of outdoor dung plasters in humid tropical environment: a geo-ethnoarchaeological case study from South India

Shira Gur-Arieh, Marco Madella, Noa Lavi, David E. Friesem

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Dung has been an important material used by humans since at least the early Neolithic Period. It accumulated within domesticated animal enclosures and it was used as fuel and fertiliser as well as construction material. While the formers were studied in details, to date, the use of dung as a construction material received less attention. Here, we present a geo-ethnoarchaeological pilot study aimed at understanding the archaeological formation processes of outdoor dung-plastered floors and the possibility to identify dung markers. We studied two house terrace in a rural village from a humid tropical environment in South India (Western Ghats). Sediment samples were collected from the plastered terrace surfaces, the terraces embankment and from forest soil controls. Multi-proxy analysis of the samples included infrared spectroscopy, phytolith and dung spherulite quantification, loss on ignition, elemental analysis and micromorphological analysis. The plastering of the floors was made by mixing a quantity of dung with water and by spreading the slurry unevenly across the terrace. This result in formation of a 0.1- to 0.5-mm-thick dung crust that the analyses showed to be rich in humified organics but with very low concentrations of phytoliths and dung spherulites. The careless spreading of the dung slurry, however, resulted in localised deposition of dung lumps that displayed relatively high concentrations of phytoliths, dung spherulites, organic matter, phosphorus and strontium. The generally low preservation of dung markers seems to be related to pre- and post-depositional processes. Forest arboreal plants are low phytoliths producer, having therefore little input of these siliceous bodies in the animal faeces. Post depositional processes included trampling, sweeping and water runoff that caused severe mechanical weathering, resulting in the heavy decay of the dung crust and the removal of dung residues from the terrace surfaces. In addition, the acidic conditions of a humid tropical environment likely promoted the complete dissolution of dung spherulites. This study provides new data and insights on the potentials and limitations of dung identification in outdoor settings in humid tropical environments. We suggest possible directions for advancing the study of archaeological dung used as construction materials.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2683-2698
Number of pages16
JournalArchaeological and Anthropological Sciences
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2019

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We are grateful and thankful to the people who accepted us into their home and allowed us to collect information and samples. This research could not have been possible without their invaluable collaboration and generosity. We thank P. Ajithparasad for his help with permits for fieldwork, S. Weiner and E. Boaretto for allowing us to use the FTIR of the Kimmel Center at the Weizmann Institute of Science and R. Shahack-Gross for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2018, The Author(s).


  • Dung
  • Geo-ethnoarchaeology
  • Humid tropical environment
  • Phytoliths
  • Plastered floors

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Archaeology
  • Anthropology
  • Archaeology


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