The natural variation in heavy metal contents of subsurface sediments in the southern Netherlands is described, based on a series of 820 bulk geochemical analyses. The detrital heavy metal contents of these sediments show linear correlations with Al as a result of their joint occurrence in phyllosilicates. Anomalous enrichments occur as a result of the presence of glauconite (As, Cr, Ni, Pb, Zn), pyrite (As) or Fe-oxides (As, Ba, Ni, Zn), due to the interaction of organic-rich subsurface material with groundwater (Co, Ni, Zn) or as a result of anthropogenic pollution in topsoils (Cu, Pb, Zn). The contents of Al, Fe, K and S are well suited to determine background values, and to identify the cause for anomalous accumulations of heavy metals. © 1997 Elsevier Science B.V.