Archaeology Terminology

Due to the diverse nature of the archaeological field, the terminology that is specific to the discipline is seemingly endless. Thus, we cannot possibly expect to account for every one of them here. Below are just a few basic terms that will help to get you started in furthering your comprehension of the archaeological field.

Absolute dating: Also known as chronometric dating, a dating method that is used to determine an object’s approximate age in calendar years. The most common example in archaeology is radiocarbon (or carbon-14) dating.

Artifact: Any object that has been made or modified for use by humans.

Assemblage: A collection of artifacts that have been grouped together due to their collection from a common archaeological context.

Biface: A stone tool that has been flaked on two sides. “Biface” is a broad term for a tool that cannot or has not been specifically identified as a projectile point, knife, axe, etc.

Chert: A very fine-grained rock that is commonly used in the production of stone tools; usually exhibits a gray, white, brown, or pinkish hue.

Core: The primary stone from which flakes have been removed.

Debitage: Stone debris left over from the production of a stone tool.

Excavation: The systematic unearthing of and data recovery from an archaeological site.

Excavation unit: A square hole of predetermined uniform size that is excavated from an archaeological site.

Feature: A component of an archaeological site that cannot be removed from the site. Examples include storage pits, post molds, architecture, and hearths.

Flake: (n): A stone fragment that has intentionally been removed from a core or a tool. (v): to remove a stone fragment from a core or tool.

Flotation: A data recovery technique that involves placing a soil sample from an archaeological site in a water tank and collecting the tiny artifacts that float to the top.

In situ: Refers to an artifact that has been found in its original context.

Lithic: Stone, or pertaining to stone. In archaeology, this term most often refers to a stone artifact.

Mano: A hand-held stone used in food preparation to grind grains (such as corn and wheat) on a stone slab, known as a metate.

Metate: A large stone slab that serves as the surface upon which to grind grains with a mano.

Midden: An area where refuse (usually with a high organic content), is stored

Projectile point: A bifacial stone tool used for arrows, spears and darts. Commonly known outside of the archaeology field as “arrowheads.”

Sherd: Ceramic fragment.

Shovel test pit: A small test hole that is excavated to determine the presence or absence of an archaeological site in a project area.

Stratigraphy: The layering of soil deposits over time. Each individual layer is referred to as a strata.

Temper: A small hard substance that is added to clay prior to the forming and firing of a ceramic vessel. Temper serves to strengthen a vessel and to prevent it from cracking during the firing process. Examples of temper include sand, quartz, and crushed sherds.

Transect: A linear area of land from which samples are taken in order to determine the presence or absence of archaeological material in the region.

Transit: An instrument that is used to create a map of an archaeological site prior to excavation. The transit (also known as the transit total station) allows archaeologists to determine such things as the topography of the site, the location of landmarks, and what areas should be excavated.

Typology: The organization of artifacts into groups based on shared attributes, such as function, decoration, or temper.

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