33 Description of soils

33.1 The scope of soil description

The soil should be described in terms of material and mass characteristics, that is in terms of nature, state and structure.

  • Nature of the soil grains: their particle size grading, shape and texture or, if appropriate, their plasticity, together with special features such as organic or carbonate content. The nature of a soil does not usually change during civil engineering works. Nature of the soil can be described on disturbed samples.
  • State of the soil grains: their packing, water content, degree of saturation, strength or relative density, and stiffness. The state of a soil usually changes during civil engineering works; the description of the state of the soil requires undisturbed samples or exposures.
  • Structure: all the features of a soil that are removed by reconstitution, i.e. fabric or microfabric features, such as bedding, discontinuities or cementing. Structure is often destroyed by large distortions, and so can be observed only in the field on natural or artificial exposures or, to some extent, in an undisturbed (Quality Class 1 or 2) sample.

Inorganic soils should be described as very coarse, coarse or fine. Table 7 shows the recommendations which are developed in more detail in the text.

NOTE 1 Low density soils, as shown in BS EN ISO 14688-1:2002, Figure 1 can also include other inorganic soils such as loess and some chemically weathered residual soils.

NOTE 2 Very coarse soils are boulders and cobbles whereas coarse soils are gravels and sands. When saturated and unconfined, they cannot sustain negative pore pressures, so these soils do not have any undrained strength or apparent cohesion. Fine soils are clays and silts. When saturated they can sustain suctions in unconfined tests and so have an apparent cohesion. If well-graded soils contain a sufficient proportion of fine grains to fill the spaces between the coarse grains, they are described as fine soils; if well-graded soils contain insufficient fine grains to fill the spaces between the coarse grains, they are described as coarse soils. These distinctions based on grain size apply equally to natural soils and man placed and made materials.

NOTE 3 The terms coarse and fine are often loosely referred to as granular and cohesive. Use of the latter terms in this context is discouraged.

Any description should acknowledge the quality of the sample by not over-describing the nature, state or structure, e.g. the state of a soil may not be described on a sample in which the water content is not representative.

The geological unit should be named where known as identified in the desk study, but might need updating as required by the ground investigation. Geological unit names should be used consistently throughout the investigation.

Table 7 Field identification and description of soils
SOIL GROUP Very coarse soils Coarse soils Fine soils
Particle size(mm) Large boulder Boulder Cobble Coarse Medium Fine Coarse Medium   Coarse Medium Fine
>630 630–200 200–63 63–20 20–6,3 6,3–2,0 2,0–0,63 0,63–0,2 0,2–0,063 0,063–0,02 0,02–0,0063 0,0063–0,002 <0,002
Only seen complete in pits or exposures. Difficult to recover whole from boreholes. Easily visible to naked eye; particle shape can be described; grading can be described. Visible to naked eye; no cohesion when dry; grading can be described. Only coarse silt visible with hand lens; exhibits little plasticity and marked dilatancy; slightly granular or silky to the touch; disintegrates in water; lumps dry quickly; possesses cohesion but can be powdered easily between fingers. Dry lumps can be broken but not powdered between the fingers; dry lumps disintegrate under water but more slowly than silt; smooth to the touch; exhibits plasticity but no dilatancy; sticks to the fingers and dries slowly; shrinks appreciably on drying usually showing cracks
Density/ Consistency No terms defined. Qualitative description of packing by inspection and ease of excavation Classification of relative density on the basis of N value (Table 10), or field assessment using hand tests may be made (Table 11). Term Very soft Soft Firm Stiff Very stiff
Field test Finger easily pushed in up to 25 mm. Exudes between fingers Finger pushed in up to 10 mm. Moulded by light finger pressure Thumb makes impression easily. Cannot be moulded by fingers. Rolls to thread Can be indented slightly by thumb. Crumbles in rolling thread. Remoulds Can be indented by thumb nail. Cannot be moulded, crumbles
Discontinuities Describe spacing of features such as fissures, shears, partings, isolated beds or laminae, desiccation cracks, rootlets, etc.
Fissured: Breaks into blocks along unpolished discontinuities.
Sheared: Breaks into blocks along polished discontinuities.
Scale of spacing of discontinuities Term very widely widely medium closely very closely extremely closely
Mean spacing (mm) > 2 000 2 000–600 600–200 200–60 60–20 < 20
Bedding Describe thickness of beds in accordance with geological definition.
Alternating layers of materials are Inter- bedded or Inter-laminated and should be described by a thickness term if in equal proportions, or by a thickness of and spacing between subordinate layers where unequal.
Scale of bedding thickness Term very thickly bedded thickly bedded medium bedded thinly bedded very thinly bedded thickly laminated thinly laminated
Mean thickness (mm) > 2 000 2 000–600 600–200 200–60 60–20 20–6 < 6
Colour HUE
can be preceded by LIGHTNESS
and/or CHROMA
Red / Pink / Orange / Yellow / Cream / Brown / Green / Blue / White / Grey / Black
Light / - / Dark
Reddish/ Pinkish / Orangeish / Yellowish / Brownish / Greenish / Bluish / Greyish
Colours may be mottled
More than 3 colours is multicoloured
Secondary constituents For mixtures involving very coarse
soils see
Term in coarse soils slightly (sandy) B) (sandy) very (sandy) B) SAND AND GRAVEL   Term in fine soils slightly (sandy) D) (sandy) D) Very (sandy) F) Silty CLAY
Clayey SILT
Terms used to reflect secondary fine constituents where this is important
Proportion secondary A) < 5 % 5–20% C) >20% C) About 50%   Proportion secondaryA) < 35 % 35–65% E) > 65 % E)
Mineralogy Terms can include: glauconitic / micaceous / shelly / organic / calcareous. For example: slightly (glauconitic) / (glauconitic) / very (glauconitic)
Carbonate content: slightly calcareous — weak or sporadic effervescence from HCI / calcareous — clear but not sustained effervescence from HCI / highly calcareous — strong, sustained effervescence from HCI.
Organic soils contain secondary finely divided or discrete particles of organic matter often with distinctive smell, might oxidize rapidly. For example: slightly organic — grey / organic — dark grey / very organic — black
Particle shape Very angular/Angular/Sub-angular/Sub-rounded/Rounded/Well-rounded
A dominant shape can be described, for example: Cubic/Flat/Elongate
Tertiary constituents Example terms include: shell fragments / pockets of peat / gypsum crystals / pyrite nodules / calcareous concretions / flint gravel / brick fragments / rootlets / plastic bags
Qualitative proportions can be given: with rare / with occasional /with numerous / frequent / abundant. Proportions are defined on a site or material specific basis, or subjectively
Geological unit Name in accordance with published geological maps, memoirs or sheet explanations. For example: RIVER TERRACE DEPOSITS / GLACIAL SAND AND GRAVEL / MADE GROUND / LANGLEY SILT MEMBER / WEATHERED CHARMOUTH
A) Percentage coarse or fine soil type assessed excluding cobbles and boulders.
B) Gravelly or sandy and/or silty or clayey.
C) Can be described as fine soil depending on mass behaviour.
D) Gravelly and/or sandy.
E) Can be described as coarse soil depending on mass behaviour.
F) Gravelly or sandy

33.2 The basis of soil description


A soil's characteristics are based on the particle size grading of the coarser particles and the plasticity of the finer particles; these play a major role in determining the engineering properties of the soil and form the basis of the soil's description.

A first appraisal of the physical properties relevant in the engineering context should be made from the visual description of the soil's nature and composition, assisted by a few simple hand tests (see Clause 34). Soils that stick together when wet and can be rolled into a thread that supports the soil's own weight (i.e. they have cohesion and plasticity) are matrix supported and should be described as fine soils (see BS EN ISO 14688-1:2002, Figure 1). Soils that do not exhibit these properties are clast supported and should be described as coarse soils.

NOTE 1 The boundary between fine and coarse soils is on the basis of behaviour, not weight percentage.

The principal soil type should first be determined as defined in Table 7, followed by description of the secondary and tertiary fractions and other features such as bedding, colour and particle shape.

NOTE 2 The descriptive process is summarized in Figure 6 (see BS EN ISO 14688-1:2002, Figure 1).

In a soil description, the main characteristics should be given using the following standard word sequence, as applicable (following the order of the rows in Table 7). The main description may be followed, where appropriate, by further details for clarity.

  • a) mass characteristics comprising state and structure (see 33.3):
    • 1) relative density/consistency;
    • 2) discontinuities;
    • 3) bedding;
  • b) material characteristics comprising nature and state (see 33.4);
    • 1) colour;
    • 2) composite soil types: particle grading and composition; shape and size;
    • 3) tertiary constituents either before or after the principal soil type as appropriate;
    • 4) principal soil type (name in capitals, e.g. SAND), based on grading and plasticity shape;
  • c) stratum name: geological formation, age and type of deposit (see 33.5); classification (optional).


  • Firm closely fissured yellowish brown CLAY (LONDON CLAY FORMATION).
  • Medium dense light greyish brown sandy slightly clayey subrounded fine to coarse GRAVEL of various lithologies with low cobble content. Cobbles are subrounded of strong sandstone (RIVER TERRACE DEPOSIT).
  • Greenish brown gravelly fine to coarse slightly glauconitic SAND. Gravel is rounded fine and medium of black flint (BLACKHEATH MEMBER).
  • Firm to stiff brown slightly sandy slightly gravelly CLAY with occasional lenses (5 mm by 15 mm to 15 mm by 50 mm) of yellow silty sand. Gravel is subangular to subrounded fine and medium of various lithologies (GLACIAL TILL).

Materials in interstratified beds may be described as follows:

  • Thinly interbedded yellow fine SAND and soft grey CLAY (ALLUVIUM).

Any additional information on the secondary or tertiary constituents should be placed at the end of the main description after a full stop, to keep the standard main description concise and unambiguous.