Key Archaeological Terms

I realized that, while I will try to make this blog as accessible as possible, there are still some key terms that need to be defined. So, here they are! I will update this post as time goes on.

Artifact: Artifacts are generally defined as portable archaeological evidence, objects that were made, modified, or used by people. They include everything from projectile points to wire nails. Artifacts are often broadly grouped into categories, such as metals, ceramics (e.g. pot fragments), glass, lithics (stone), faunal remains (animal bones), floral remains (plant remains). Those latter two are sometimes referred to as ecofacts, but that’s not a term I commonly use.

Feature: Features are non-portable archaeological evidence, such as hearths or architectural remains. “Non-portable” here means that they cannot be removed from the archaeological record without fundamentally altering their form. A ceramic fragment removed from the record still retains its form as a ceramic; a hearth, when excavated, loses its shape and integrity by virtue of the excavation.

Site: How you define an archaeological site is something that is often contested in archaeology. Sites can be collections of artifacts and features, areas defined by oral or written histories, or simply ‘the area the archaeologist was able to survey’. When we refer to the Barneston site, we are referring to the town and its “immediate vicinity” (itself an ill-defined term). The Japanese American Community is a site within Barneston that is similarly defined, and similarly vague.

Provenance: The 3-dimensional location of any artifact, feature, or other object-of-interest on an archaeological site. Maintaining control of provenance is key to archaeological research, as the associations and contexts associated with material culture helps us determine its function.

Association: The spatial relationship between any two or more artifacts, features, or other objects-of-interest. Often we express this by saying that “X is associated with Y”, which means that X appears to have some spatial relationship with Y. X and Y might be in the same pit together, or in the same stratum, or household. “Scatters”, for example, are clusters of artifacts that are associated with one another by virtue of the fact that they are found grouped close together relative to other artifacts on the site.

Context: Oh boy, this is a complicated concept. It can refer to a lot of different things. Instead of giving one definition, I’m going to give a few that matter for this project:

  • Context can refer to relevant details about the surroundings of an artifact, feature, or object-of-interest. For example, let us say you find some modern trash on your archaeology site. Next to you is a large plateau, on top of which currently live people. The context of your surroundings suggests that that modern trash may be from people throwing their refuse off of the side of the plateau. This helps you understand how your site may have been contaminated with modern material. This requires that you pay attention to your surroundings, to the local social and natural environment. It requires that you understand the context surrounding your finds.
  • Context can refer to a kind of action, a means of developing interpretations about the past. Here we use context as a verb, to contextualize.

Survey: An archaeological survey is, at its simplest, any attempt to geographically locate archaeological material. Archaeologically surveys are usually concerned with the amount, concentration, and extent of archaeological material, as well as their integrity. Integrity here refers to the extent to which archaeological material has been disturbed since it was originally deposited in the ground. Since we are often interested in what happened before and when the material was deposited, anything that modifies the material afterwards is potentially biasing. Archaeological surveys are usually low- or minimally-intensive, which means we try to minimize (even more so than normal) how much we disturb the archaeological record.

Excavation: Excavation involves more detailed sub-surface investigation of an archaeological feature, site, or area of interest. In excavations, we remove dirt in a systematic and careful manner and screen whatever we remove through shaker screens to collect artifacts or other archaeological material.