Law of superposition

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Layer upon layer of rocks on north shore of Isfjord, Svalbard, Norway. Since there is no overturning, the rock at the bottom is older than the rock on the top by the Law of Superposition.

The law of superposition is an axiom that forms one of the bases of the sciences of geology, archaeology, and other fields dealing with geological stratigraphy. In its plainest form, it states that in undeformed stratigraphic sequences, the oldest strata will be at the bottom of the sequence. This is important to stratigraphic dating, which assumes that the law of superposition holds true and that an object cannot be older than the materials of which it is composed. The law was first proposed in the 17th century by the Danish scientist Nicolas Steno.

Archaeological considerations

Superposition in archaeology and especially in stratification use during excavation is slightly different as the processes involved in laying down archaeological strata are somewhat different from geological processes. Man made intrusions and activity in the archaeological record need not form chronologically from top to bottom or be deformed from the horizontal as natural strata are by equivalent processes. Some archaeological strata (often termed as contexts or layers) are created by undercutting previous strata. An example would be that the silt back-fill of an underground drain would form some time after the ground immediately above it. Other examples of non vertical superposition would be modifications to standing structures such as the creation of new doors and windows in a wall. Superposition in archaeology requires a degree of interpretation to correctly identify chronological sequences and in this sense superposition in archaeology is more dynamic and multi-dimensional.

See also



  • Hamblin, W.K. The Earth's Dynamic Systems, A Textbook in Physical Geology, by W. Kenneth Hamblin, BYU, Provo, UT, Illus. William L. Chesser, Dennis Tasa, (Burgess Publishing Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota), c 1978, pg. 115, "The Principle of Superposition and Original Horizontality;" pg. 116: The Principle of Faunal Succession, "The Principle of Crosscutting Relations;" pg 116-17: "The Principle of Inclusion," (as in the Steno discussion above).
  • Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. 40 figs. 1 pl. 136 pp. London & New York: Academic Press ISBN 0-12-326650-5
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