Stratigraphy, a branch of geology
Geology is the science comprising the study of solid Earth, the rocks of which it is composed, and the processes by which it evolves. Geology gives insight into the history of the Earth, as it provides the primary evidence for plate tectonics, the evolutionary history of life, and past climates...

, studies rock
Rock (geology)
In geology, rock or stone is a naturally occurring solid aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids.The Earth's outer solid layer, the lithosphere, is made of rock. In general rocks are of three types, namely, igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic...

 layers and layering (stratification
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

). It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary
Sedimentary rock
Sedimentary rock are types of rock that are formed by the deposition of material at the Earth's surface and within bodies of water. Sedimentation is the collective name for processes that cause mineral and/or organic particles to settle and accumulate or minerals to precipitate from a solution....

 and layered volcanic rock
Volcanic rock
Volcanic rock is a rock formed from magma erupted from a volcano. In other words, it is an igneous rock of volcanic origin...

Stratigraphy includes two related subfields: lithologic stratigraphy or lithostratigraphy
Lithostratigraphy is a sub-discipline of stratigraphy, the geological science associated with the study of strata or rock layers. Major focuses include geochronology, comparative geology, and petrology...

 and, biologic stratigraphy or biostratigraphy
Biostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy which focuses on correlating and assigning relative ages of rock strata by using the fossil assemblages contained within them. Usually the aim is correlation, demonstrating that a particular horizon in one geological section represents the same period...


Historical development

The theoretical basis for the subject was established by Nicholas Steno who re-introduced the law of superposition
Law of superposition
The law of superposition is a key axiom based on observations of natural history that is a foundational principle of sedimentary stratigraphy and so of other geology dependent natural sciences:...

 and introduced the principle of original horizontality
Principle of original horizontality
The Principle of Original Horizontality was proposed by the Danish geological pioneer Nicholas Steno . This principle states that layers of sediment are originally deposited horizontally under the action of gravity...

 and principle of lateral continuity
Principle of lateral continuity
The principle of lateral continuity states that layers of sediment initially extend laterally in all directions; in other words, they are laterally continuous...

 in a 1669 work on the fossilization of organic remains in layers of sediment.

The first practical large scale application of stratigraphy was by William Smith
William Smith (geologist)
William 'Strata' Smith was an English geologist, credited with creating the first nationwide geological map. He is known as the "Father of English Geology" for collating the geological history of England and Wales into a single record, although recognition was very slow in coming...

 in the 1790s and early 19th century. Smith, known as the Father of English Geology, created the first geologic map
Geologic map
A geologic map or geological map is a special-purpose map made to show geological features. Rock units or geologic strata are shown by color or symbols to indicate where they are exposed at the surface...

 of England, and first recognized the significance of strata
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...

 or rock layering, and the importance of fossil markers for correlating strata. Another influential application of stratigraphy in the early 19th century was a study by Georges Cuvier
Georges Cuvier
Georges Chrétien Léopold Dagobert Cuvier or Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric Cuvier , known as Georges Cuvier, was a French naturalist and zoologist...

 and Alexandre Brongniart
Alexandre Brongniart
Alexandre Brongniart was a French chemist, mineralogist, and zoologist, who collaborated with Georges Cuvier on a study of the geology of the region around Paris...

 of the geology of the region around Paris.

Lithologic stratigraphy

Lithostratigraphy, or lithologic stratigraphy, is the most obvious. It deals with the physical lithologic
The lithology of a rock unit is a description of its physical characteristics visible at outcrop, in hand or core samples or with low magnification microscopy, such as colour, texture, grain size, or composition. It may be either a detailed description of these characteristics or be a summary of...

, or rock type, change both vertically in layering or bedding of varying rock type and laterally reflecting changing environments of deposition
Sedimentary depositional environment
In geology, sedimentary depositional environment describes the combination of physical, chemical and biological processes associated with the deposition of a particular type of sediment and, therefore, the rock types that will be formed after lithification, if the sediment is preserved in the rock...

, known as facies
In geology, facies are a body of rock with specified characteristics. Ideally, a facies is a distinctive rock unit that forms under certain conditions of sedimentation, reflecting a particular process or environment....

 change. Key elements of stratigraphy involve understanding how certain geometric relationships between rock layers arise and what these geometries mean in terms of depositional environment. One of stratigraphy's basic concepts is codified in the Law of Superposition
Law of superposition
The law of superposition is a key axiom based on observations of natural history that is a foundational principle of sedimentary stratigraphy and so of other geology dependent natural sciences:...

, which simply states that, in an undeformed stratigraphic sequence, the oldest strata occur at the base of the sequence.

Chemostratigraphy or correctly termed Chemical Stratigraphy is the study of the variation of chemistry within sedimentary sequences. The name of the field is relatively young, having only come into common usage in the early 1980s, but the basic idea of chemostratigraphy is nearly as old as...

is based on the changes in the relative proportions of trace elements and isotope
Isotopes are variants of atoms of a particular chemical element, which have differing numbers of neutrons. Atoms of a particular element by definition must contain the same number of protons but may have a distinct number of neutrons which differs from atom to atom, without changing the designation...

s within and between lithologic units. Carbon
Carbon is the chemical element with symbol C and atomic number 6. As a member of group 14 on the periodic table, it is nonmetallic and tetravalent—making four electrons available to form covalent chemical bonds...

 and oxygen
Oxygen is the element with atomic number 8 and represented by the symbol O. Its name derives from the Greek roots ὀξύς and -γενής , because at the time of naming, it was mistakenly thought that all acids required oxygen in their composition...

 isotope ratios vary with time and are used to map subtle changes in the paleoenvironment. This has led to the specialized field of isotopic stratigraphy.

Cyclostratigraphy is the study of astronomically forced climate cycles within sedimentary successions . Astronomical cycles are variations of the Earth's orbit around the sun due to the gravitational interaction with other masses within the solar system. Due to this cyclicity solar irradiation...

documents the often cyclic changes in the relative proportions of mineral
A mineral is a naturally occurring solid chemical substance formed through biogeochemical processes, having characteristic chemical composition, highly ordered atomic structure, and specific physical properties. By comparison, a rock is an aggregate of minerals and/or mineraloids and does not...

s, particularly carbonate
In chemistry, a carbonate is a salt of carbonic acid, characterized by the presence of the carbonate ion, . The name may also mean an ester of carbonic acid, an organic compound containing the carbonate group C2....

s, and fossil diversity with time, related to changes in palaeoclimate
Paleoclimatology is the study of changes in climate taken on the scale of the entire history of Earth. It uses a variety of proxy methods from the Earth and life sciences to obtain data previously preserved within rocks, sediments, ice sheets, tree rings, corals, shells and microfossils; it then...



Biostratigraphy or paleontologic
Paleontology "old, ancient", ὄν, ὀντ- "being, creature", and λόγος "speech, thought") is the study of prehistoric life. It includes the study of fossils to determine organisms' evolution and interactions with each other and their environments...

 stratigraphy is based on fossil
Fossils are the preserved remains or traces of animals , plants, and other organisms from the remote past...

 evidence in the rock layers. Strata from widespread locations containing the same fossil fauna and flora are correlatable in time. Biologic stratigraphy was based on William Smith's principle of faunal succession, which predated, and was one of the first and most powerful lines of evidence for, biological evolution. It provides strong evidence for formation (speciation
Speciation is the evolutionary process by which new biological species arise. The biologist Orator F. Cook seems to have been the first to coin the term 'speciation' for the splitting of lineages or 'cladogenesis,' as opposed to 'anagenesis' or 'phyletic evolution' occurring within lineages...

) of and the extinction
In biology and ecology, extinction is the end of an organism or of a group of organisms , normally a species. The moment of extinction is generally considered to be the death of the last individual of the species, although the capacity to breed and recover may have been lost before this point...

 of species
In biology, a species is one of the basic units of biological classification and a taxonomic rank. A species is often defined as a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring. While in many cases this definition is adequate, more precise or differing measures are...

. The geologic time scale
Geologic time scale
The geologic time scale provides a system of chronologic measurement relating stratigraphy to time that is used by geologists, paleontologists and other earth scientists to describe the timing and relationships between events that have occurred during the history of the Earth...

 was developed during the 19th century based on the evidence of biologic stratigraphy and faunal succession. This timescale remained a relative scale until the development of radiometric dating
Radiometric dating
Radiometric dating is a technique used to date materials such as rocks, usually based on a comparison between the observed abundance of a naturally occurring radioactive isotope and its decay products, using known decay rates...

, which gave it and the stratigraphy it was based on an absolute time framework, leading to the development of chronostratigraphy.

One important development is the Vail curve, which attempts to define a global historical sea-level curve according to inferences from world-wide stratigraphic patterns. Stratigraphy is also commonly used to delineate the nature and extent of hydrocarbon
In organic chemistry, a hydrocarbon is an organic compound consisting entirely of hydrogen and carbon. Hydrocarbons from which one hydrogen atom has been removed are functional groups, called hydrocarbyls....

-bearing reservoir rocks, seals and traps in petroleum geology
Petroleum geology
Petroleum geology refers to the specific set of geological disciplines that are applied to the search for hydrocarbons .-Sedimentary basin analysis:...



Chronostratigraphy is the branch of stratigraphy that studies the absolute, not relative, age of rock strata
In geology and related fields, a stratum is a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics that distinguish it from other layers...


Chronostratigraphy is based upon deriving geochronological
Geochronology is the science of determining the age of rocks, fossils, and sediments, within a certain degree of uncertainty inherent to the method used. A variety of dating methods are used by geologists to achieve this, and schemes of classification and terminology have been proposed...

 data for rock units, both directly and by inference, so that a sequence of time relative events of rocks within a region can be derived. In essence, chronostratigraphy seeks to understand the geologic history of rocks and regions.

The ultimate aim of chronostratigraphy is to arrange the sequence of deposition and the time of deposition of all rocks within a geological region, and eventually, the entire geologic record of the Earth.

A gap in the geological record is known as a hiatus and is thought to be caused by non-deposition.


Magnetostratigraphy is a chronostratigraphic technique used to date sedimentary and volcanic sequences. The method works by collecting oriented samples at measured intervals throughout the section. The samples are analyzed to determine their detrital remnant magnetism (DRM), that is, the polarity of Earth's magnetic field at the time a stratum was deposited. For sedimentary rocks, this is possible because when very fine-grained magnetic minerals (< 17 micrometre
A micrometer , is by definition 1×10-6 of a meter .In plain English, it means one-millionth of a meter . Its unit symbol in the International System of Units is μm...

s) fall through the water column, they orient themselves with Earth's magnetic field
Earth's magnetic field
Earth's magnetic field is the magnetic field that extends from the Earth's inner core to where it meets the solar wind, a stream of energetic particles emanating from the Sun...

. Upon burial, that orientation is preserved. The minerals behave like tiny compasses. For volcanic rocks, magnetic minerals that form as the melt cools orient with the ambient magnetic field.

Oriented paleomagnetic core samples are collected in the field; mudstones, siltstones, and very fine-grained sandstones are the preferred lithologies because the magnetic grains are finer and more likely to orient with the ambient field during deposition. If the ancient magnetic field was oriented similar to today's field (North Magnetic Pole
North Magnetic Pole
The Earth's North Magnetic Pole is the point on the surface of the Northern Hemisphere at which the Earth's magnetic field points vertically downwards . Though geographically in the north, it is, by the direction of the magnetic field lines, physically the south pole of the Earth's magnetic field...

 near the North Rotational Pole) the strata retain a normal polarity. If the data indicate that the North Magnetic Pole was near the South Rotational Pole, the strata exhibit reversed polarity.

Results of the individual samples are analysed by removing the natural remanent magnetization
Natural Remanent Magnetization
Natural remanent magnetization is the permanent magnetism of a rock or sediment. In some forms, it can preserve a record of the Earth's field and the tectonic movement of the rock over millions of years...

 (NRM) to reveal the DRM. Following statistical analysis the results are used to generate a local magnetostratigraphic column that can then be compared against the Global Magnetic Polarity Time Scale.

This technique is used to date sequences that generally lack fossils or interbedded igneous rocks. The continuous nature of the sampling means that it is also a powerful technique for the estimation of sediment accumulation rates.

Archaeological stratigraphy

In the field of archaeology
Archaeology, or archeology , is the study of human society, primarily through the recovery and analysis of the material culture and environmental data that they have left behind, which includes artifacts, architecture, biofacts and cultural landscapes...

, soil stratigraphy is used to better understand the processes that form and protect archaeological site
Archaeological site
An archaeological site is a place in which evidence of past activity is preserved , and which has been, or may be, investigated using the discipline of archaeology and represents a part of the archaeological record.Beyond this, the definition and geographical extent of a 'site' can vary widely,...

s. The law of superposition holds true, and this can help date finds or features from each context, as they can be placed in sequence and the dates interpolated. Phases of activity can also often be seen through stratigraphy, especially when a trench or feature is viewed in section
Archaeological section
In archaeology a section is a view in part of the archaeological sequence showing it in the vertical plane, as a cross section, and thereby illustrating its profile and stratigraphy. This may make it easier to view and interpret as it developed over time....

 (profile). As pits and other features can be dug down into earlier levels, not all material at the same absolute depth is necessarily of the same age, but close attention has to be paid to the archeological layer
Layer may refer to:* A layer of archaeological deposits in an excavation* A layer hen, a hen raised to produce eggs* Stratum, a layer of rock or soil with internally consistent characteristics...

s. The Harris-matrix is a tool to depict complex stratigraphic relations, as they are found, for example, in the contexts of urban archaeology
Urban archaeology
Urban archaeology is a sub discipline of archaeology specialising in the material past of towns and cities where long-term human habitation has often left a rich record of the past....


See also

  • Assise
    An assise , is a geological term for two or more beds or strata of rock united by the occurrence of the same characteristic species or genera....

  • Harris matrix
    Harris matrix
    The Harris matrix is a tool used to depict the temporal succession of archaeological contexts and thus the sequence of deposition on a 'dry land' archaeological site. The matrix reflects the relative position and stratigraphic contacts of observable stratigraphic units, or contexts. The Matrix was...

  • Important publications in stratigraphy
  • International Commission on Stratigraphy
    International Commission on Stratigraphy
    The International Commission on Stratigraphy , sometimes referred to by the unofficial "International Stratigraphic Commission" is a daughter or major subcommittee grade scientific daughter organization that concerns itself with stratigraphy, geological, and geochronological matters on a global...

  • Key bed
    Key bed
    In geology, a key bed is a widespread sedimentary layer that formed at a single time, such that it is useful for geologic correlations and dating over a large area...

  • Sedimentary basin analysis
    Sedimentary basin analysis
    Sedimentary basin analysis is a geologic method by which the history of a sedimentary basin is revealed, by analyzing the sediment fill itself. Aspects of the sediment, namely its composition, primary structures, and internal architecture, can be synthesized into a history of the basin fill...

  • Sequence stratigraphy
    Sequence stratigraphy
    Sequence stratigraphy is a branch of geology that attempts to subdivide and link sedimentary deposits into unconformity bound units on a variety of scales and explain these stratigraphic units in terms of variations in sediment supply and variations in the rate of change in accommodation space...

External links

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