World’s Largest Soil Archive Brings History to Life

Jenna Hoffman:

In 2018, a barn on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) main campus was set to be demolished. On demo day, Andrew Margenot, associate professor of soil sciences, walked into the dusty, dilapidated barn to size up the job at hand. That’s when he stumbled upon a once-in-a-lifetime discovery.

Nestled within the confines of the decaying barn walls sat 8,000 mason jars filled with Illinois soil dating back to 1862. At 450 sampling locations spanning 21 million crop acres, it’s the world’s largest soil archive.

This unique find is likely the oldest collection, as few soil archives exceed 40 years.

“I went in there thinking I might find a few soil samples from a professor before me. But as I walked through the barn, I found collapsed wooden aisles that previously held the hundreds of jars on the ground — some broken, others in perfect condition,” Margenot says.

Upon closer inspection, he discovered the labels on the jars provided a road map. Each label included the sample date (down to the day), sample county and soil classification.