#237 What Good are Munsell Colors?

Not property of WCRM, in fact.

What have you used Munsell colors for? Have you really had slight variability in soils to a point where it helped you interpret the site in a different way? In many cases the stratigraphy is different enough that a Munsell color is just overkill. Just call it tan, or, light brown. Whatever. OK. Now that I’ve caused you to quit reading and go straight to an angry comment, I’ll continue.

Munsell Variability

Everyone knows that Munselling soil color has a high degree of error. Do you take the sample wet or dry? Should you shade it or do it in sunlight? What about fluorescent light in the lab? Or, incandescent light in your home. I’ve got LED lights in my home; what does that do to the color?

The only way to get a consistent reading from the Munsell book, and even consistency from one person is asking a lot, is to have one person do it across the site in exactly the same conditions.

OK. You’ve designated a person to do all the Munsells. You decided to do them wet and shaded. Great. You’re now project manager of the year. Now what?


What does having a Munsell color do for your analysis of the site? We seem to take a Munsell every time we do something that involves digging. From shovel tests to full block excavations, we always Munsell. I’ve never been on a ground disturbing project that didn’t do Munsells.

I say again, what is the use? Couldn’t you get just as much information by determining the stratigraphy and just numbering the strats? You’d need a key, of course, so people would all have the same definition of Strat 1. This is a trivial matter with tablets, of course. It’s a bit more difficult with paper because you have to make sure everyone has the definitions and that they don’t lose them.

Some might argue that there is value in calling the strat 10YR5/4 rather than a color. Some others would argue that one person’s light brown is another person’s medium brown, or, brownish gray. Would a project manager look at these differences and really thing that there were different strats in those cases? Maybe. That would be a PM that never visited the site, too.

Of course the answer to all of this is to just take a photograph. Photos are cheap and easy and you can take as many as you want. Better yet, take a little video and narrate what you see. There is no better observer than the person standing right there.

What Would Happen if We Stopped?

I want to know what the worse case scenario would be if we stopped taking Munsells. As with everything, there still might be areas where the exact Munsell color is useful. But, on many sites it’s just not useful data. I’ve always been a proponent of taking as much data about a site as possible. You never know if some grad student is going to make a breakthrough with your useless data 50 years from now. Since archaeology is a destructive activity you only have one chance to record as much as possible. This is the only argument I can see to taking Munsell colors. Otherwise, a description and a photograph of the soil will tell me a lot more than a Munsell ever will.

What do you think? Am I way off base here? If so, tell me how Munsells helped you interpret something about a site better than not having them. Have you ever not taken Munsells and found out later that you wish you had? If I don’t get comments on this one I might as well pack it in because it will seem that no one is reading this. I suspect someone will comment though. We get pretty fired up when it comes to Munsells.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!

#235 Munsell Color Fun

A couple years ago I did a guest post on the Munsell Color Blog. Yeah, that Munsell. Anyway, since then I’ve been following the blog and their fun Twitter account. The other day I saw something that was just geeky enough to be sort of fun. Check it out.

3D Interactive Munsell Color Space

Created by Oriane Lima, an MD, a PhD, and a painter, has created some really fun Munsell graphics. Below, is a 3D interactive visualization of the Munsell color solid. Click around. It does fun things.

Munsell Color Studies and Art

On this page are a number of interactive visualizations. I clicked on the 10YR V/C page, of course. You start with an empty 10YR page with the color chips off to the left. Drag on the chips to place them in the right squares. If you hold a click on one chip for 5-10 seconds you get the grid location to help you out.

On most of these pages you can interact in different ways, although, that's not always apparent. Click around and see what you can do.

I haven’t had time yet to play with all of this. Let me know what you played around with in the comments.

Thanks for reading and I’ll see you in the field!