The purpose of this glossary is to provide you with a supplement to your textbook and its glossary. Because it is impossible to separate what archaeologists know about prehistory from how we have learned it, it is important for you to have an understanding of the methods and techniques of archaeology. While your textbook, Images of the Past, provides a good introduction to world prehistory, it addresses theoretical and methodological topics only as they arise. I will follow the same approach, but want you to have a quick reference guide to assist you in this class. For this reason, I have compiled this glossary. You will see that we archaeologists use a very specialized language, and to understand the lectures, the readings, etc., you will have to learn to understand and use this language. You will need to master this "working vocabulary" to be able to pass this course. I urge you to read through this glossary the first week of class and start to learn these terms. I intend for you to use this glossary throughout the term as a quick and easy reference guide.
For additional information,
you may want to consult these sources,
Fagan, Brian M. 2001 In the Beginning: an Introduction to Archaeology.
Sharer, Robert J. and Wendy Ashmore 1993 Archaeology: Discovering Our Past.
Thomas, David H. 1989 Archaeology.
Webster, David L. , Susan T. Evans, William T. Sanders 1993 Out of the Past: an
Introduction to Archaeology.
Glossary of Archaeological Method, Theory, and Practice
*means term is now in Price and Feinman text
Absolute Dating*: determination of age on a particular time scale, such as in calendar years before the present (B.P.) or in years A.D. or B.C. Also known as chronometric dating. Radiometric dating (eg., radiocarbon [C-14] dating and potassium-argon [K-Ar] dating) and tree-ring dating are types of absolute dating.
Activity Area: spatial distribution or patterning of artifacts and ecofacts in a site indicating that a specific activity, such as cooking or tool-making took place.
Adaptive strategy: technology, ecology, demography, and economics that define human behavior.
Analogy: a process of reasoning in which two entities that share some similarities are assumed to share others; the basis of most archaeological interpretation. For example, ethnographic analogy involves the use of ethnographic information to interpret archaeological data.
Anthropology: the study of humanity from a comprehensive, holistic approach; the study of humankind from the earliest times to the present, including the four subfields: physical anthropology, archaeology, socio-cultural anthropology and linguistics.
Antiquarian: individuals, who during the 18th and 19th centuries, collected, dug up, or purchased antiquities unscientifically, usually for private gain, in contrast to the scientific archaeologist.
Antiquities Act (1906): The first U.S. law to attempt protection of archaeological sites. This act gave the president authority to establish national monuments based on their archaeological resources and also made looting illegal on federal lands.
Archaeological Culture: a grouping of all assemblages inferred to represent the activities carried out within an ancient culture.
Archaeological Record: The physical remains produced by past human activities, which are recovered, studied, and interpreted by archaeologists to construct knowledge of the past.
Archaeological Resource Protection Act (1979): U.S. law that provides for protection of sites more than 100 years old on Federal and Indian land. Illegal theft/looting of an archaeological site is a felony, and a first offense can bring a $10,000 fine and 1 year in prison. Such protection does not extend to sites located on private lands.
Archaeological Theory: a body of theoretical concepts providing a framework by which archaeologists look beyond the "facts" and material objects for explanation of patterned behavior in human prehistory. Theory guides the interpretation of archaeological finds to construct knowledge of the past.
Archaeologist: A professional scholar who studies the past using scientific methods with the goal of recording, interpreting, and preserving knowledge of ancient and contemporary cultures. (compare with antiquarian and looter).
Archaeology*: a field of anthropology specializing in the study of material remains to understand humanity. Basic objectives include building culture histories, reconstructing past lifeways, and studying cultural process.
Archaic*: a New World chronological period transitional between highly mobile hunting and gathering life and settled agricultural life.
Arrowhead: an informal term for stone tips mounted on arrowshafts; the term projectile point is preferred because for many such pointed tools, the method of hafting or propulsion is inferred but not known.
Artifact*: a discrete or portable object manufactured or modified by human beings. Major categories of artifacts include lithic, ceramic, organic, and metal.
Assemblage*: all the artifacts found in a component of a site.
Association*: the relationship between an artifact and other archaeological finds (other artifacts, features, faunal remains, datable sediments, etc.) within an archaeological deposit.
Awl: a bone or stone tool tapered to a point and used to pierce holes, make incisions, or in basket weaving.
Band: a small, egalitarian society subsisting by hunting and gathering that flourished for most of prehistory. Bands consist of a family or a series of families with approximately 20-50 people.
Blade*: a long, thin, and parallel-sided stone flake, usually removed from a carefully prepared core, often by means of a punch.
B.P.: Before present; used in dating. "Present" means A.D. 1950 as a fixed reference point.
Bulb of percussion: a small protrusion on the inside surface of a flake caused by conchoidal fracture of a core of siliceous rock.
Burin*: blade tool, flaked on either or both ends to form a small chisel or grooving tool.
Ceramics: objects of fired clay, including pottery and figurines.
Chiefdom: a form of social organization more complex than a tribe or band level society. An individual "chief" provides leadership, and re-distributes goods and services in the society. There is usually some task-specialization beyond customary divisions of labor by age and sex.
Chipped stone: a class of lithic artifacts produced by striking flakes from a core.
Clan: group of people from several lineages who live in one place and have a common line of descent; a kin grouping.
Class: a general group of artifacts, like hand axes or projectile points that can be broken down into specific types.
Classic: a New World archaeological period marked by state development in the Mesoamerican and Andean South American culture areas.
Classical Archaeology: a type of historical archaeology specializing in the study of the classical civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome.
Collector: an individual who accumulates artifacts for personal gain by means destructive to archaeology. Today, the demands of collectors are met by looters who destroy the context of archaeological finds and the sites themselves.
Complex: a chronological subdivision of different artifact types like stone tools, pottery, etc. used in the development of culture histories.
Component: an association of all the artifacts from one occupation level and one time period at a site.
Conchoidal fracture: characteristic fracture pattern in siliceous rocks, such as obsidian, flint, or chert.
Context: the position of an archaeological find in time and space, established by measuring and assessing its associations, matrix, and provenience.
Contract archaeology: archaeological research conducted under legal agreement with a government or private agency. In the U.S., it is carried out under authority of legislation designed to protect cultural resources.
Core*: a lithic artifact from which humans strike off flakes. It can serve as a tool itself or as raw material from which other tools are made.
Cranial: of or pertaining to the skull or cranium.
Cross-dating: dating of a site by objects or features of known age, or artifact associations of known age.
Cultural ecology: study of the dynamic interactions between human societies within their ecosystems. Culture is viewed as the primary mechanism by which human societies adapt to their environment.
Cultural evolution: a theory similar to biological evolution, which views human cultures as changing gradually throughout time as a result of various cultural processes.
Cultural process: an archaeological approach that studies mechanisms and interactions within a culture that produce stability and/or change. Processual archaeologists use both descriptive and explanatory models based on functional, ecological and cultural evolutionary concepts of culture.
Cultural resources: the physical remains of past cultural systems, including prehistoric archaeological sites and historic buildings and structures. In the United States, any cultural resource listed or eligible to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places is worthy of consideration and protection.
Cultural resource management*: the conservation and management of prehistoric and historic archaeological sites and their contents as a means of safeguarding the archaeological record.
Cultural system: a perspective on culture that views culture and its environment as a number of linked systems in which change in one subsystem effects change in another subsystem.
Cultural tradition: a distinctive toolkit or technology that lasts a long time, at one or several localities.
Culture*: a concept that underlies and unites the subfields of anthropology. Cultures are sets of designs for living that help pattern human behavior. Archaeological cultures are similar artifact assemblages found at several sites, defined for a specific time period and geographic region.
Culture area: a geographic area which shares some general similarities in environment and culture. Culture areas can be defined ethnographically or archaeologically.
Culture History: a means by which archaeologists use artifacts to build up descriptive models of patterned human behavior in a specific temporal and spatial context.
Datum: a location from which all measurements on a site are made; a reference point tied to local survey maps.
Debitage*: waste flakes or chunks resulting from the manufacture of chipped stone artifacts.
Dendrochronology*: tree-ring dating. Sequences of tree ring patterns have been linked to develop a continuous chronological sequence for some parts of the world, most notably, the southwestern United States.
Diffusion: the spread or transmission of a culture trait from one area to another.
Direct historical approach: a means of working backward in time from historic evidence to more remote periods in prehistory.
Direct percussion: a stone tool manufacturing technique in which flakes are produced by striking a core with a hammerstone or against a fixed anvil stone.
Ecofact*: bones, vegetal matter, pollen, shells, modified soils, or other archaeological finds that although not manufactured by humans, provide important clues as to human behavior or the environmental context of such behavior.
Effigy*: an image or representation, usually depicting people or animals, often made of ceramic or stone.
Ethnoarchaeology: a form of ethnography focusing on the study of material remains to aid archaeological interpretation. Sometimes called living archaeology, it involves the study of contemporary patterns of the use and discard of artifacts and food remains, and patterns of evidence for use and settlement of the landscape.
Ethnocentrism*: bias in which other societies are evaluated or judged by standards or morals derived from the observer's culture.
Ethnography*: an in-depth, descriptive study of a culture; part of the subfield of socio-cultural anthropology.
Ethnohistory*: study of the past using indigenous historical records like oral traditions in addition to conventional historical records.
Ethnology: cross-cultural, comparative study of aspect of various cultures; part of the subfield of sociocultural anthropology.
Evolution*: the process of gradual or rapid growth or change of one form into another. In biology, all forms of life evolve from a process of change directed by natural selection.
Excavation*: a method of data collection in which archaeologists remove the soil matrix and observe and record the provenience and context of archaeological finds.
Exchange system: a system for trading or transferring goods, services, or ideas between individuals and communities.
Faunal remains: a type of ecofact derived from non-human animals, including bones, shells, teeth, antlers, etc. whose study provides information on subsistence, husbandry, and dietary practices.
Feature*: an non-portable artifact, such as a house or storage pit, which cannot be removed from a site.
Flake*: lithic (stone) artifact detached from a core, either as a tool, material for making tools, or as debitage.
Flintknapper*: someone who manufactures stone artifacts.
Flotation*: recovery of light artifacts or ecofacts using water. Flotation is especially important in the recovery of plant remains to separate seeds, husks, etc. from their surrounding deposit.
Flute*: a distinctive thinning flake or flakes evident on Clovis or Folsom projectile points.
Formation processes: humanly-caused or natural processes by which an archaeological site is modified during or after occupation and abandonment.
Graver: a stone tool with a protruding edge or point used for fine cutting or incising.
Grid: a site grid is a set of regularly spaced intersecting lines, usually marked by stakes, that provide the basic reference system for recording provenience of archaeological finds in a site.
Grinding stone: a ground stone artifact frequently used to process plants.
Ground stone: a class of lithic artifacts produced by pecking, abrading, and polishing hard stones to form tools with durable edges and surfaces (like metates, manos, mortars, pestles, adzes, etc.).
Hammerstone*: a hard, often oblong or rounded cobble, used in flintknapping.
Historic Sites Act (1935): U.S. law that established the National Register of Historic Places as a listing of sites of national significance because of their association with famous people and places. (The definition and purpose of the NRHP was greatly expanded through more recent laws.)
Historical archaeology: archaeology of literate societies. The distinction with prehistoric archaeology is not always clear-cut, however.
History: the study of the past through written records that are compared, placed in chronological sequence, and interpreted.
Ideology*: the knowledge or beliefs developed by human societies as part of their cultural adaptation.
Indirect percussion: a stone tool manufacturing technique in which flakes are produced by striking a core with a punch made of bone, wood, or antler.
Inorganic artifacts: artifacts made of stone, minerals, clay, or metals.
Law of Superposition: the principle that the sequence of strata in a deposit, from bottom to top, reflects the order of deposition, from earliest to latest.
Levallois technique*: a method of manufacturing chipped stone artifacts from a specially prepared core to predetermine the shape of a large flake to be removed.
Lithic*: of or pertaining to stone, as in lithic technology or lithic artifacts.
Living floor*: a generic and imprecise term applied to a occupational level in an archaeological deposit assumed to be the actual surface on which prehistoric activities took place.
Looter: a person who illegally plunders archaeological sites to obtain artifacts of commercial value, simultaneously destroying critical evidence archaeologists use to understand the past.
Material culture: referring to technology and artifacts.
Matrix: the surrounding deposit in which archaeological finds are located.
Microblade: a long narrow blade, usually less than 2 inches long.
Midden*: a deposit of occupational debris, garbage, or other by-products of human activity.
Mitigation: measures taken to minimize destruction of archaeological materials in sites.
National Environmental Planning Act (1969): This U.S. law requires comprehensive land use planning of all Federal actions affecting the environment, including consideration of cultural resources. The act calls for development of Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) to assess potential impacts to the environment.
National Historic Preservation Act (1966): U.S. law that expanded the definition of sites eligible to the National Register of Historic Places to include sites of regional and local significance. It also established a process by which these sites had to be considered in the planning of all federally funded development or permitting projects.
Obsidian*: black volcanic glass frequently used in stone tool manufacture. Sources of obsidian can be chemically "finger-printed" to reconstruct ancient patterns of travel and trade.
Obsidian hydration: a dating method that measures the thickness of the hydration layer or "rind" of obsidian artifacts, because of the way that obsidian absorbs water; most prudently considered a relative dating technique.
Oral traditions: historical traditions (often genealogies or stories) passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.
Organic artifacts: materials made of bone, shell, wood, horn, hide, bark, fiber, ivory, hide, etc. that were once part of living organisms. Bone, shell, and ivory artifacts preserve more readily in archaeological sites that highly perishable wood, fiber, or hide artifacts.
Palynology*: analysis of pollen grains and spores from archaeological sites to reconstruct past vegetation and climate.
Period: an archaeological unit defining a major unit of prehistoric time.
Physical Anthropology: also known as biological anthropology, this subfield includes the study of fossil human beings, genetics, primates, and blood groups.
Potassium-Argon dating*: an absolute dating technique based on the decay rate of potassium 40K which becomes argon gas 40Ar. The method determines the ratio of potassium to argon in a rock, and is used to date very old sites, generally greater than 1 million years old.
Pothunting: a person who illegally plunders archaeological sites to obtain artifacts of commercial value, simultaneously destroying critical evidence archaeologists use to understand the past; essentially, another term for looter.
Potsherd*: a fragment of a clay or ceramic vessel.
Pottery: a class of ceramic artifacts in which clay is formed into containers or utensils (by hand, in molds, or with a potter's wheel), sometimes decorated, and fired.
Prehistory*: the millennia of ancient human history preceding written records. Prehistorians study prehistoric archaeology.
Pressure flaking*: a stone-working technique in which thin flakes or blades are removed from a core or artifact by applying pressure with an antler, bone, or wood flaker.
Primary context: an undisturbed and original association and provenience.
Projectile point: an artifact used to tip an arrow, atlatl dart, spear, or harpoon. Most commonly, projectile points are made of chipped or ground stone, bone, or metal. Wood projectile points rarely survive in archaeological deposits.
Provenience*: three dimensional spatial position of an archaeological find.
Quarry: a type of site where mineral resources are procured or mined.
Radiocarbon dating*: an absolute dating method based on measuring the decay rate of the carbon isotope(C-14), to stable nitrogen in organic materials (wood, charcoal, shell, etc.) During life, all plants and animals ingest atmospheric carbon, and after they die that cannot absorb any more C-14. C-14 has a half-life of 5730 years, and by determining the current rate of C-14 decay in a sample, one can estimate the elapsed time since the death of a plant or animal. This technique is useful for sites younger that 40,000 years B.P.
Reconnaissance - systematic attempts to locate, identify, and record the distribution of archaeological sites on the ground and with respect to the natural geographic and environmental background.
Relative chronology: temporal estimates based on the law of superposition, the presence of artifacts known to be time markers, obsidian hydration measurements, or seriation.
Research design: a systematic plan to guide archaeological research according to the scientific method and take full advantage of the information potential contained within a site.
Retouch*: a technique of chipped stone tool manufacture in which pressure flaking is used to detach small flakes to improve the edges of a tool in order to better perform a specific task (like scraping, cutting, etc.).
Rock Art: includes pictographs (designs painted on stone surfaces) and petroglyphs (designs pecked or incised on stone surfaces).
Scientific method: the means of science by which phenomena are observed, hypotheses are tested, and conclusions are drawn.
Seasonality*: the season of occupation of a site. Seasons are defined differently in different environments and by different societies.
Secondary context: a context of an archaeological find that has been disturbed by subsequent human activity or natural processes.
Seriation: methods used to place artifacts in chronological order based on similarities in style; a relative dating technique.
Settlement pattern: spatial distribution of the evidence (sites, features, etc.) of human use and settlement on the landscape.
Settlement system: the sites in a particular region during a particular period of time, and their social, economic, and political relationships.
Site*: any place where artifacts, features, or ecofacts made or modified by people are found.
Site survey: identification and recording of basic characteristics of archaeological sites.
Society for American Archaeology (SAA): a professional organization for archaeologists specializing in the archaeology of the Americas; it publishes two scholarly journals, American Antiquity and Latin American Antiquity.
State*: a stratified society more complex than a chiefdom, including political power sanctioned by legitimate force and social integration through concepts of nationality, ideology, or religion; usually defined by territorial boundaries. States societies are typically highly stratified by class and have hierarchies of settlement types.
Sterile layer: a deposit lacking evidence of human activity.
Stratigraphy: the superimposed definable layers, or strata, in an archaeological deposit.
Stratigraphic profiles*: drawings of the natural and cultural deposits of strata exposed in an excavation unit, presented in a "cut-away" diagram format.
Stratum: a single layer or level in an archaeological deposit.
Style: variation in artifact form that is not necessary related to function.
Subsistence: means of supporting life, in particular, by obtaining food.
Subsistence strategy: decisions and actions that affect the food resource and raw material procurement of a society.
Taphonomy: study of the processes by which animal bones and shells and plant and other fossil remains are transformed after deposition.
Technology*: the means by which human societies interact directly with and adapt to the environment. Technology can also refer to the steps taken, or manufacturing process used, to produce an artifact.
Temporal context: the age/date of an object and its temporal relation to other items in the archaeological record.
Test Pit: an excavation unit used to sample or probe a site used to recover basic information on the depth, contents, and age of an archaeological deposit. The results of test pit excavations can be used to develop research designs or protection efforts.
Tool kit: a spatially or functionally patterned grouping of artifacts.
Tradition: persistent technological or cultural patterns identified by characteristic or diagnostic artifact forms.
Tribe: a group of bands unified by a council of representatives or kin groups.
Type: a grouping of artifacts created for comparison with other groups.
Type fossil: a tool characteristic or diagnostic of a particular archaeological period.
Typology: classification of types; the process of setting up and selecting categories to organize and analyze data.
Uniformitarianism: principle that holds that the earth was formed and has evolved through the same natural geological processes operating today.
Use-wear analysis: techniques for determining the use or function of an artifact by analyzing traces of use on the tool itself. These traces include edge-wear, rounding, chipping, striations, and scars, some visible to the naked eye, while others require magnification.
Zooarchaeology: the study of animal remains (bones, shell, teeth, etc.) in archaeology to understand human diet, subsistence practices, and site formation processes among other topics.