Combustion of fossil fuel and vegetation produces large quantities of black canbon particles (BCP) which are dispersed by winds over large areas. Once deposited in the sediment, BCP constitute an historic record of anthropogenic activities and wildfires. For BCP to be significant environmental indicators, it is necessary to determine their source as precisely as possible. A method has been developed to differentiate BCP from other carbonaceous particles, and to assign them to coal, oil, or biomass combustion using a scanning electron microscope equipped with an elemental detector (Analytical Scanning Electron Microscope, ASEM). BCP were identified in the ASEM as particles with an O/C atomic ratio of less than 0.15. Morphology (shape and surface texture) and trace element content (S and Cl) were used to classify BCP according to source using samples of known origin (oil, coal and wood fly-ash) and marine sediment samples from Halifax Inlet, which has undergone progressive urbanisation and industrialization over the last 250 years. The method is applicable to a wide size range of BCP and complete isolation of the BCP from the rest of the sample is not necessary. © 1997 Elsevier Science B.V.