Skip to main content
Engineering LibreTexts

2.2: Soil Mechanics

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    2.2.1. Definition

    McGraw-Hill Science & Technology Encyclopedia gives the following description of Soil Mechanics:
    The study of the response of masses composed of soil, water, and air to imposed loads. Because both water and air are able to move through the soil pores, the discipline also involves the prediction of these transport processes. Soil mechanics provides the analytical tools required for foundation engineering, retaining wall design, highway and railway sub base design, tunneling, earth dam design, mine excavation design, and so on. Because the discipline relates to rock as well as soils, it is also known as geotechnical engineering. Soil consists of a multiphase aggregation of solid particles, water, and air.

    This fundamental composition gives rise to unique engineering properties, and the description of the mechanical behavior of soils requires some of the most sophisticated principles of engineering mechanics. The terms multiphase and aggregation both imply unique properties. As a multiphase material, soil exhibits mechanical properties that show the combined attributes of solids, liquids, and gases. Individual soil particles behave as solids, and show relatively little deformation when subjected to either normal or shearing stresses. Water behaves as a liquid, exhibiting little deformation under normal stresses, but deforming greatly when subjected to shear. Being a viscous liquid, however, water exhibits a shear strain rate that is proportional to the shearing stress. Air in the soil behaves as a gas, showing appreciable deformation under both normal and shear stresses. When the three phases are combined to form a soil mass, characteristics that are an outgrowth of the interaction of the phases are manifest. Moreover, the particulate nature of the solid particles contributes other unique attributes.

    Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 4.34.07 PM.png
    Figure 2-1: Earthwork in Germany (source Wikimedia).

    When dry soil is subjected to a compressive normal stress, the volume decreases nonlinearly; that is, the more the soil is compressed, the less compressible the mass becomes. Thus, the more tightly packed the particulate mass becomes, the more it resists compression. The process, however, is only partially reversible, and when the compressive stress is removed the soil does not expand back to its initial state.

    When this dry particulate mass is subjected to shear stress, an especially interesting behavior owing to the particulate nature of the soil solids results. If the soil is initially dense (tightly packed), the mass will expand because the particles must roll up and over each other in order for shear deformation to occur. Conversely, if the mass is initially loose, it will compress when subjected to a shear stress. Clearly, there must also exist a specific initial density (the critical density) at which the material will display zero volume change when subjected to shear stress. The term dilatancy has been applied to the relationship between shear stress and volume change in particulate materials. Soil is capable of resisting shear stress up to a certain maximum value. Beyond this value, however, the material undergoes large, uncontrolled shear deformation.

    The other limiting case is saturated soil, that is, a soil whose voids are entirely filled with water. When such a mass is initially loose and is subjected to compressive normal stress, it tends to decrease in volume; however, in order for this volume decrease to occur, water must be squeezed from the soil pores. Because water exhibits a viscous resistance to flow in the microscopic pores of fine-grained soils, this process can require considerable time, during which the pore water is under increased pressure. This excess pore pressure is at a minimum near the drainage face of the soil mass and at a maximum near the center of the soil sample. It is this gradient (or change in pore water pressure with change in position within the soil mass) that causes the outflow of water and the corresponding decrease in volume of the soil mass. Conversely, if an initially dense soil mass is subjected to shear stress, it tends to expand. The expansion, however, may be time-dependent because of the viscous resistance to water being drawn into the soil pores. During this time the pore water will be under decreased pressure. Thus, in saturated soil masses, changes in pore water pressure and time-dependent volume change can be induced by either changes in normal stress or by changes in shear stress.

    2.2.2. Soil Creation

    The primary mechanism of soil creation is the weathering of rock. All rock types (igneous rock, metamorphic rock and sedimentary rock) may be broken down into small particles to create soil. Weathering mechanisms are physical weathering, chemical weathering, and biological weathering. Human activities such as excavation, blasting, and waste disposal, may also create soil. Over geologic time, deeply buried soils may be altered by pressure and temperature to become metamorphic or sedimentary rock, and if melted and solidified again, they would complete the geologic cycle by becoming igneous rock.

    Physical weathering includes temperature effects, freeze and thaw of water in cracks, rain, wind, impact and other mechanisms. Chemical weathering includes dissolution of matter composing a rock and composition of soils. Physical weathering includes temperature effects, freeze and thaw of water in cracks, rain, wind, impact and other mechanisms. Chemical weathering includes dissolution of matter composing a rock and precipitation in the form of another mineral. Clay minerals, for example can be formed by weathering of feldspar, which is the most common mineral present in igneous rock. The most common mineral constituent of silt and sand is quartz, also called silica, which has the chemical name silicon dioxide. The reason that feldspar is most common in rocks but silicon is more prevalent in soils is that feldspar is much more soluble than silica. Silt, Sand, and Gravel are basically little pieces of broken rocks. According to the Unified Soil Classification System, silt particle sizes are in the range of 0.002 mm to 0.075 mm and sand particles have sizes in the range of 0.075 mm to 4.75 mm. Gravel particles are broken pieces of rock in the size range 4.75 mm to 100 mm. Particles larger than gravel are called cobbles and boulders.

    Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 4.36.18 PM.png
    Figure 2-2: Fox glacier, New Zealand (source Wikimedia).

    Soil deposits are affected by the mechanism of transport and deposition to their location. Soils that are not transported are called residual soils -- they exist at the same location as the rock from which they were generated. Decomposed granite is a common example of a residual soil. The common mechanisms of transport are the actions of gravity, ice, water, and wind. Wind-blown soils include dune sands and loess. Water carries particles of different size depending on the speed of the water, thus soils transported by water are graded according to their size. Silt and clay may settle out in a lake, and gravel and sand collect at the bottom of a river bed. Wind-blown soil deposits (aeolian soils) also tend to be sorted according to their grain size. Erosion at the base of glaciers is powerful enough to pick up large rocks and boulders as well as soil; soils dropped by melting ice can be a well graded mixture of widely varying particle sizes. Gravity on its own may also carry particles down from the top of a mountain to make a pile of soil and boulders at the base; soil deposits transported by gravity are called colluvium.

    The mechanism of transport also has a major effect on the particle shape. For example, low velocity grinding in a river bed will produce rounded particles. Freshly fractured colluvium particles often have a very angular shape.

    2.2.3. Soil Classification

    Soil classification deals with the systematic categorization of soils based on distinguishing characteristics as well as criteria that dictate choices in use.

    Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 4.39.41 PM.png
    Figure 2-3: Soil naming according to USDA.

    Soil texture is a qualitative classification tool used in both the field and laboratory to determine classes for agricultural soils based on their physical texture. The classes are distinguished in the field by the 'textural feel' which can be further clarified by separating the relative proportions of sand, silt and clay using grading sieves: The Particle Size Distribution (PSD). The class is then used to determine crop suitability and to approximate the soils responses to environmental and management conditions such as drought or calcium (lime) requirements. A qualitative rather than a quantitative tool it is a fast, simple and effective means to assess the soils physical characteristics. Although the U.S.D.A. system uses 12 classes whilst the U.K.-ADAS uses just 11 the systems are mutually compatible as shown in the combined soil textural triangle below.

    Hand analysis, whilst an arbitrary technique, is an extremely simple and effective means to rapidly assess and classify a soils physical condition. Correctly executed the procedure allows for rapid and frequent assessment of soil characteristics with little or no equipment. It is thus an extremely useful tool for identifying spatial variation both within and between plots (fields) as well as identifying progressive changes and boundaries between soil classes and orders.

    The method involves taking a small sample of soil, sufficient to roll into a ball of approximately 2.5 cm diameter, from just below the surface. Using a small drop of water or 'spit' the sample is then moisten to the sticky point (the point at which it begins to adhere to the finger). The ball is then molded to determine its workability and its class according to the steps in the chart opposite.

    Soil separates are specific ranges of particle sizes. In the United States, the smallest particles are clay particles and are classified by the USDA as having diameters of less than 0.002 mm. The next smallest particles are silt particles and have diameters between 0.002 mm and 0.05 mm. The largest particles are sand particles and are larger than 0.05 mm in diameter. Furthermore, large sand particles can be described as coarse, intermediate as medium, and the smaller as fine. Other countries have their own particle size classifications.

    Table 2-1: Soil Classification.

    Name of Soil

    Diameter Limits (mm)



    Fine silt


    Medium silt


    Coarse silt


    Very fine sand


    Fine sand


    Medium sand


    Coarse sand


    Very coarse sand


    Fine gravel


    Medium gravel


    Coarse gravel






    Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 4.44.48 PM.png
    Figure 2-4: Soil failure (
    Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 4.46.17 PM.png
    Figure 2-5: The Wenjiagou landslide (
    Screen Shot 2020-08-13 at 4.48.14 PM.png
    Figure 2-6: Karl von Terzaghi, one of the founders of modern soil mechanics.

    This page titled 2.2: Soil Mechanics is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Sape A. Miedema (TU Delft Open Textbooks) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

    • Was this article helpful?