It’s a profoundly interesting question and Charles Darwin experimented to find the answer. I bet you all thought I had forgotten about my series on Darwin’s experiments! Darwin came up with a couple of different methods for answering the question. This is one (In this one Darwin also notices a phenomena familiar to archaeologists – but you will have to figure that one out on your own):
A quantity of broken chalk was spread, on December 20, 1842, over a part of a field near my house, which had existed as pasture certainly for 30, probably for twice or thrice as many years. The chalk was laid on the land for the sake of observing at some future period to what depth it would become buried. At the end of November, 1871, that is after an interval of 29 years, a trench was dug across this part of the field; and a line of white nodules could be traced on both sides of the trench, at a depth of 7 inches from the surface. The mould, therefore, (excluding the turf) had here been thrown up at an average rate of ·22 inches per year. Beneath the line of chalk nodules there was in parts hardly any fine earth free of flints, while in other parts there was a layer, 2¼ inches in thickness. In this latter case the mould was altogether 9¼ inches thick; and in one such spot a nodule of chalk and a smooth flint pebble, both of which must have been left at some former time on the surface, were found at this depth. At from 11 to 12 inches beneath the surface, the undisturbed reddish clay, full of flints, extended. The appearance of the above nodules of chalk surprised me much at first, as they closely resembled water-worn pebbles, whereas the freshly-broken fragments had been angular. But on examining the nodules with a lens, they no longer appeared water-worn, for their surfaces were pitted through unequal corrosion, and minute, sharp points, formed of broken fossil shells, projected from them. It was evident that the corners of the original fragments of chalk had been wholly dissolved, from presenting a large surface to the carbonic acid dissolved in the rain-water and to that generated in soil containing vegetable matter, as well as to the humus-acids.* The projecting corners would also, relatively to the other parts, have been embraced by a larger number of living rootlets; and these have the power of even attacking marble, as Sachs has shown. Thus, in the course of 29 years, buried angular fragments of chalk had been converted into well-rounded nodules.
Another part of this same field was mossy, and as it was thought that sifted coal-cinders would improve the pasture, a thick layer was spread over this part either in 1842 or 1843, and another layer some years afterwards. In 1871 a trench was here dug, and many cinders lay in a line at a depth of 7 inches beneath the surface, with another line at a depth of 5½ inches parallel to the one beneath. In another part of this field, which had formerly existed as a separate one, and which it was believed had been pasture-land for more than a century, trenches were dug to see how thick the vegetable mould was. By chance the first trench was made at a spot where at some former period, certainly more than forty years before, a large hole had been filled up with coarse red clay, flints, fragments of chalk, and gravel; and here the fine vegetable mould was only from 4⅛ to 4⅜ inches in thickness. In another and undisturbed place, the mould varied much in thickness, namely from 6½ to 8½ inches; beneath which a few small fragments of brick were found in one place. From these several cases, it would appear that during the last 29 years mould has been heaped on the surface at an average annual rate of from ·2 to ·22 of an inch. But in this district when a ploughed field is first laid down in grass, the mould accumulates at a much slower rate. The rate, also, must become very much slower after a bed of mould, several inches in thickness, has been formed; for the worms then live chiefly near the surface, and burrow down to a greater depth so as to bring up fresh earth from below, only during the winter when the weather is very cold (at which time worms were found in this field at a depth of 26 inches) and during summer, when the weather is very dry. A field, which adjoins the one just described, slopes in one part rather steeply (viz., at from 10° to 15°); this part was last ploughed in 1841, was then harrowed and left to become pasture-land. For several years it was clothed with an extremely scant vegetation, and was so thickly covered with small and large flints (some of them half as large as a child’s head) that the field was always called by my sons “the stony field.” When they ran down the slope the stones clattered together. I remember doubting whether I should live to see these larger flints covered with vegetable mould and turf. But the smaller stones disappeared before many years had elapsed, as did every one of the larger ones after a time; so that after thirty years (1871) a horse could gallop over the compact turf from one end of the field to the other, and not strike a single stone with his shoes. To anyone who remembered the appearance of the field in 1842, the transformation was wonderful. This was certainly the work of the worms, for though castings were not frequent for several years, yet some were thrown up month after month, and these gradually increased in numbers as the pasture improved. In the year 1871 a trench was dug on the above slope, and the blades of grass were cut off close to the roots, so that the thickness of the turf and of the vegetable mould could be measured accurately. The turf was rather less than half an inch, and the mould, which did not contain any stones, 2½ inches in thickness. Beneath this lay coarse clayey earth full of flints, like that in any of the neighbouring ploughed fields. This coarse earth easily fell apart from the overlying mould when a spit was lifted up. The average rate of accumulation of the mould during the whole thirty years was only ·083 inch per year (i.e., nearly one inch in twelve years); but the rate must have been much slower at first, and afterwards considerably quicker.
The transformation in the appearance of this field, which had been effected beneath my eyes, was afterwards rendered the more striking, when I examined in Knole Park a dense forest of lofty beech-trees, beneath which nothing grew. Here the ground was thickly strewed with large naked stones, and worm-castings were almost wholly absent. Obscure lines and irregularities on the surface indicated that the land had been cultivated some centuries ago. It is probable that a thick wood of young beech-trees sprung up so quickly, that time enough was not allowed for worms to cover up the stones with their castings, before the site became unfitted for their existence. Anyhow the contrast between the state of the now miscalled “stony field,” well stocked with worms, and the present state of the ground beneath the old beech-trees in Knole Park, where worms appeared to be absent, was striking.
One of these days I’m going to have to do a post of all the ways Darwin, unknowingly, has contributed to archaeological theory. His earthworm book is a treasure trove of observations archaeologists should have paid attention to.
Filed under: The Experimental Darwin