Glossary of Archaeological Terms
ANTHROPOLOGY: The scientific and humanistic study of man's present and past biological, linguistic, social, and cultural variations. Its major subfields are archaeology, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and anthropological linguistics.
ARCHAEOBOTANISTS: Archaeobotanists are involved in the identification and interpretation of all kinds of plant remains found on archaeological sites. Remains range from tiny microscopic pollen to larger fragments of charcoal, seeds, fruits and nuts. The identification of these materials can provide a general picture of the role of plants in ancient diets as well as environmental information. Wood charcoal studies can indicate which species of woods were present in the region and were burned as fuel. Seed remains can be used to estimate when sites were occupied. Archaeobotanical studies then, can tell us not only what plants people were eating, but they can indicate the season of site occupation, what kinds of habitats people were exploiting, and the impact ancient humans had on the environment.
ARCHAEOLOGICAL CONTEXT: The physical setting, location, and cultural association of artifacts and features within an archaeological site.
ARCHAEOLOGY (also spelled ARCHEOLOGY): The scientific study of the physical evidence of past human societies recovered through the excavation. Archaeologists not only attempt to discover and describe past cultures, but also to formulate explanations for the development of cultures.
ARCHAEOLOGIST: Anyone with an interest in the aims and methods of archaeology. A professional archaeologist usually holds a degree in anthropology with a specialization in archaeology and is trained to collect archaeological information in a proper scientific way.
ARCHAEOMETRY: Scientific analysis of archaeological materials.
ARTIFACT: Any object manufactured, used or modified by humans. Common examples include tools, utensils, art, food remains, and other products of human activity. They can be classified into types. These types reflect function or use, styles from a particular time period, or specific groups of people. ASSEMBLAGE: A group of artifacts related to each other based upon some recovery from a common archaeological context. Assemblage examples are artifacts from a site or feature.
ATLATL: A wood or bone shaft implement, held in one hand, and used to propel a spear. The tool functions as a lever, giving greater thrust and distance.
ATTRIBUTES: Archaeologists tend to classify or type artifacts and features. This is done by looking at attributes. Attributes are the smallest unit of analysis. An attribute is a characteristic such as color or a measurement of length or width.
BENTONITES: A clay formed by the decomposition of volcanic ash, having the ability to absorb large quantities of water and to expand to several times its normal volume.
BIFACE: Biface refers to a chipped stone tool which has been completely formed on both sides or faces. A biface knife, for instance, is completely chipped, flat, and often ovoid or bipointed in shape. The carefully chipped edges formed the working edge of the tool. An arrowhead or spear point is a specialized form of biface.
BIRD POINTS: Many people who have found tiny arrowpoints assume they were used to hunt very small game such as birds. These tiny points were some of the last ones made of stone just prior to the introduction of metal artifacts. They were used to hunt buffalo, deer, elk, and other large game. Early points were used on atlatl darts or throwing spears. They tended to be large, lanceolate types during Paleoindian times. By 7000 years ago, large notched styles were also in use, and lanceolate points were mid_sized. Later dart points were either side or corner notched but still on the order of two or more inches long. The tiny points came into use on the Plains in the sometime after A.D. 1500.
BOTANICAL: Analysis of plant remains.
BOTANIST: A person who pursues the scientific study of the structure, growth, and identification of plants.
CACHE PIT: This is nothing more than the French term for a storage pit. Similar terms include atlatl (spearthrower), mano and metate (handstone and milling stone), and provenience (a bad rendition of provenance, or location).
CALCAREOUS CONCRETIONS: A rounded mass of mineral matter occurring in sand stone, clay, etc., often in concentric layers around a nucleus.
CENTRAL HALL: A frame house consisting of two rooms and an enclosed central hall. When this house type is two story it is called an "I" house.
CERAMICS: Pottery and ceramic artifacts.
CHERT: A very fine grained rock formed in ancient ocean sediments. It often has a semi_glassy finish and is usually white, pinkish, brown, gray, or blue_gray in color. It can be shaped into arrowheads by chipping. It has often been called flint, but true flint is found in chalk deposits and is a distinctive blackish color.
CHRONOMETRY: The art of measuring time accurately.
CONSERVATION ARCHAEOLOGY: A subfield of archaeology which focuses on the preservation of archaeological resources. This position encourages the stabilization and preservation of archaeological sites as opposed to their immediate excavation.
CONTEXT: Perhaps the most important word in archaeology is context. Context is the location of an artifact or feature in relationship with all other artifacts and features in three_dimensional space. It is the relationships between artifacts and features that help an archaeologist reconstruct human behavior.
CULTURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT: A branch of archaeology that is concerned with developing policies and action in regard to the preservation and use of cultural resources.
CULTURAL RESOURCES: Sites, structures, landscapes, and objects of some importance to a culture or community for scientific, traditional, religious, or other reasons.
DAUB: Clay used to fill in the holes and gaps between the wood or thatching of a wall. It was used by both Indians and European settlers in North America to construct houses.
DENDROCHRONOLOGY: The scientific study of the annular growth of trees. Trees produce rings of various thickness annually in response to rainfall. Tree_rings therefore, can be used to reconstruct fluctuations in rainfall in the past, reflecting past climatic conditions.
DEMOGRAPHY: The study of the distribution, density, and vital statistics of populations.
DOUBLE CRIB: Two rooms or chambers connected by a single roof to form a barn used for storage of grains or stabling of animals.
END SCRAPER: A stone tool formed by chipping the end of a flake of stone which can then be used to scrape animal hides and wood.
ETHNOHISTORY OR ENTHOARCHEAOLOGY: Linking the past and present.
FAUNA: A Latin term which refers to animals remains, as opposed to flora which refers to plant remains.
FEATURES: Evidence of human activities visible as disturbances in the soil. Such disturbances are produced by digging pits for storage, setting posts for houses, or by constructing a hearth for cooking. These disturbances are often distinguished by soil discolorations.
FLOTATION: A method of obtaining seeds and other organic materials from soil by using liquids.
FLUTE: A long, narrow flake removed from a spear point to aid in the binding of the point to the spear shaft.
GEOARCHEAOLOGY: Sediments and site formation (lithics, dating, sediments, geomorphology).
GEOLOGIST: A person who studies the history of the earth and its life, especially as recorded in rocks.
GORGET: An ornament usually worn over the chest which may be either suspended on a cord or attached directly to clothing.
GRIT AND GROG TEMPERED POTTERY: Sand (grit) and crushed pottery sherds (grog) mixed in the unfired clay to make ceramic vessels stronger. These inclusions prevented the rapid expansion of the paste as the clay's water content was boiled away when the pottery was fired.
HISTORIC ARCHEAOLOGY: Analysis of historic sites and artifacts.
HISTORIC SITES ACT of 1935: Public Law 74_292; 49 Statute 666 enabling the authorized expenditure of funds for archaeological studies on major land modification projects.
HORTICULTURE: The science and art of growing fruit, flowers, ornamental plants, and vegetables in small gardens.
INCISED: A decoration found on pottery consisting of lines drawn into wet clay. When fired, the arrangement of lines leaves a permanent design on the vessel surface.
INTERACTION SPHERE: This term refers to prehistoric groups who shared social interaction and exchanged material goods, through a network made up of long distance trade contacts.
MATERIAL CULTURE: Is the material means by which humans adapt to the world. Archaeologists think in terms of artifacts and features. These are the material objects that are used to: (1) help determine a sequence of events and dates, (2) formulate a reconstruction of many ways of life, and (3) help to provide us some understanding of why human culture has changed through time.
MIDDEN: The layer of soil which contains the byproducts of human activity as the result of the accumulation of these materials on their living surface. For prehistoric sites, a layer of soil that was stained to a dark color by the decomposition of organic refuse which also contained food bones, fragments of stone tools, charcoal, pieces of pottery, or other discarded materials. For historic sites, a similar layer of soil but with appropriate historic material remains often in a much thinner deposit.
MORTISES AND TENONS: A method of carpentry joinery where holes are chiseled as receptacles (mortises) for chiseled projections (tenons) on wooden beams.
NATIONAL HISTORIC PRESERVATION ACT of 1966: Public Law 89_665, as amended by Public law 96515, National Historic Preservation Act Amendments of 1980, 94 Stat. 2987. This act and its amendments clearly established the basic funding and implementation of archaeological work in federally funded projects.
NATIONAL REGISTER of HISTORIC PLACES (NRHP): The administrative branch of the Department of Interior that officially reviews nominations of archaeological and historic sites and structures, and guides the federal implementation of cultural resources legislation.
ORAL HISTORY: Verbally transmitted information about past events. Although often providing information about non-written events, such history is subject to the vagaries of human perceptions and mental recall.
OUTBUILDINGS: A term used to refer to all nonresidential structures on a site. These include animal pens, storage buildings, sheds, barns, etc.
OUTCROPS: A term designating the surface exposure of rock layers, which have not been decomposed into soil.
PALISADE: Many of the earthlodge villages of the Plains Village peoples, and later the Arikara and Mandan, were fortified by a deep ditch and a log stockade wall, also known as a palisade.
PALYNOLOGIST: One who studies plant pollen and spores. Since pollen may be preserved thousands of years it can be used to reconstruct the plant ecology of the past.
PEDOLOGY: The science that deals with the study of soils.
PETROGLYPHS: Carvings in rock which express artistic or religious meaning.
PICTOGRAPHS: Paintings on rock which express artistic or religious meaning.
PLEISTOCENE: A geologic period, usually thought of as the Ice Age, which began about 1.6 million years ago and ended with the melting of the large continental glaciers creating the modern climatic pattern about 11,500 years ago.
PREHISTORIC HUNTER: Gatherers_Humans who lived prior to written history and depended upon the hunting of wild animals and the gathering of natural plant foods for their livelihood
PREHISTORIC SITES: Locations where people who were alive before modern written records existed once lived, hunted, camped, or were buried. Painted or carved rock outcrops are considered sites as well.
PROVENIENCE: The three_dimensional location of an artifact or feature within an archaeological site, measured by two horizontal dimensions, and a vertical elevation.
PUNCTATES: Impressions in the surface of ceramic vessels made by implements or by fingernails as a form of decoration.
RADIOCARBON DATING: A process that provides absolute dates by counting the radioactive decay of carbon in the remains of once living plants and animals (i.e., charcoal, wood, bone, shell).
RESCUE ARCHAEOLOGY: A term applied to the emergency salvage of sites in immediate danger of destruction by major land modification projects such as reservoir construction.
SEDENTARY: A term applied to human groups leading a settled, non_migratory lifestyle.
SHERDS: The individual pieces of broken pottery vessels.
SITE: A location where human activities once took place and left some form of material evidence.
SOIL SCIENTISTS: One who studies the distribution, fertility, and chemical and organic composition of the upper layer of the Earth.
STATE ARCHAEOLOGIST: An appointed official who is responsible for overseeing all potential impacts to archaeological resources and for reviewing and administering all archaeological work in order to insure compliance with state and federal regulations.
STONE BOILING: A type of cooking that is done by heating stones in an open fire and then placing themin the liquid or substance to be cooked. This is often done in baskets or containers that cannot be placed directly in or over a fire.
SUBSISTENCE ECONOMY: The means by which a group obtains the food and shelter necessary to support life.
TERRITORY: The familiar surroundings or home range which is claimed by a group of people.
TEST EXCAVATIONS: Subsurface excavations in areas which are either defined as sites based on surface artifacts or thought to contain buried deposits based on the landform.
TIMBER FRAME: An early English building technique using sawn or hewn lumber (cut using hand tools) and joined with mortises and tenons (holes and pegs) instead of nails.
TOOL KIT: The set of all weapons and tools that was created and used by a person or group of people.
WORKING PERIOD FARM: A term usually associated with a working museum exhibit in which a full scale farm has been restored or reconstructed to depict the former lifeways, tools, and technologies of particular periods.
ZOOARCHAEOLOGISTS: Zooarchaeologists study different types of animal remains recovered on archaeological sites. This can include animal teeth and bones, insects and shell. Zooarchaeologists often deal with small, fragmentary pieces of bone that could have come from many different animals. We can learn much about ancient diets from animal remains. For example, we can estimate the number of individuals of one species represented at a site. This can give a rough idea of how much food is represented by the remains. We also can learn something of the nature of site occupations. The placement of cut marks on animal bones can be used in the reconstruction of ancient butchering practices. For example, the presence of cut marks made by knives and stone tools at bone joints can indicate that the animal was butchered as a source of meat. However, if a skeleton of a deer or wolf, for example, seems to have cut marks only at the ends of extremities (toes and fingers) and in the neck area, the animal may have been skinned only and used as a source of fur. Zooarchaeological studies then, can indicate what animal foods were eaten by ancient populations, as well as the season of site occupation, and the uses of different animals hunted.
ZOOLOGY: A branch of biology that is concerned with the scientific study of animals, including their biology, distribution, and identification.