Lichliter - IA

Section IA: Glossary of Common Archaeological Terms

[Note: Some words appear in bold text to denote those which are also described independently within this glossary.]

Archaeological Record

The archaeological record refers to all of the physical remains produced by past human activities.  It is a more or less continuous distribution of the products and by-products of human behavior on and within the land surface.  This distribution is highly variable in density, with denser areas recognized as "sites."  In addition to sites, the archaeological record also includes isolated artifacts, isolated features, natural features that hold information about past environments, and empty spaces where humans did not conduct activities or conducted activities that left no material trace.  The term archaeological record refers to the material remains themselves, not to the field records that archaeologists create to describe those remains.


An artifact is a portable object whose form is modified or created by human activity.  An artifact could be a single object, a composite of several materials, or only a fragment of an object.  In prehistoric American archaeology, the most common material classes are lithics (chipped stone tools; ground stone tools), ceramics (earthenware pottery), and organic artifacts made from faunal materials (objects made from animal bones, shells, teeth, antler, and other remains).  A group of artifacts from the same site is often termed an "assemblage," which may refer to all artifacts from a site or all of the artifacts of just one material class from a site (also termed as an "industry" or in certain uses, a "tradition"). 


Archaeological specimens have provenience-based relationships with adjacent objects noted at the time of discovery.  Objects that are found together in the same level of a feature/stratum are considered to be associated with each other due to their proximity in space (and presumably time).  Associations between objects found in the same level of a feature/stratum are common, obvious, and easy to document: a mixed lot of artifacts found together would simply be bagged together and share a field specimen number.  Association however is not limited just to specimens that were found on the same day and were collected in the same bag.  Associations can potentially span many vertical levels or horizontal units, because artifacts are likely to be associated with those of other levels in the same feature and/or adjacent areas in the same stratum.  For example, features are normally excavated in many separate individual levels; all specimens of all material classes in all the features levels are likely to be associates even though they are recovered from different levels at different times.  Likewise, specimens recovered from a non-feature midden unit may be considered associates of those from adjacent units where the same midden continues.


A component is a temporal sub-division of a site, reflecting the use of the same landform at different periods of time.  It is common for sites to include objects and features from multiple occupations (i.e. a "multi-component" site) as people tend to be drawn to the same resource-rich landforms over centuries and millennia.  It is often the case that the more thoroughly a site is investigated, the more likely it is to yield at least modest evidence of additional components.  Differentiating components is primarily about recognizing and articulating the temporal aspect of a site.  Some archaeologists refer to the process of assigning features to temporal components as "phasing" but this term is not used universally.  Different components may represent either lengthy periods of occupation (often centuries) by related peoples or non-continuous use by unrelated groups.  For example, the Fox Farm site in Mason County, Kentucky, is referred to as a single site with one name, but it actually includes three separate village components used by the same culture continuously over several centuries from 700 to 400 years ago.  In contrast, the Fort Ancient earthwork in Warren County, Ohio, was built by the Hopewell people approximately 2000 years ago and abandoned within a few centuries.  A different Late Prehistoric group built villages approximately 1000 years ago on a floodplain adjacent to the earthwork and occasionally buried their dead within the earthwork walls.  Fort Ancient is a multi-component site where the components have no direct relationship to each other.  Some multi-component sites have discrete, identifiable occupations and some are difficult to delineate because of temporal/spatial overlap.


Archaeological specimens have provenience-based relationships with non-objects, such as features and cultural strata, which are established by an object's provenience.  The context of a specimen is key to interpreting its own significance and the significance of the context.  For example, a ceramic vessel's interpretation would be different if the vessel were found in a human burial rather than if the same vessel were to be found within a trash midden.  Likewise, the interpretation of a human burial would be altered if that burial included a rare ceramic vessel from a distant, exotic origin (i.e. the burial would be more likely to be interpreted as that of a high-status individual). 


The term "diagnostic" is sometimes used interchangeably with "special find."  Diagnostic objects are those which have characteristics specific to a named artifact type (e.g. a "Chesser" projectile point), or specific to a particular culture, tradition, or time period.  These objects can be related to a known cultural phenomenon that has a corresponding temporal and spatial range.  For example, "bladelets" are a distinct type of formal stone tool that was manufactured prehistorically by the Hopewell people of the Middle Woodland time period in Ohio and at no other point in Ohio prehistory. 


Ecofacts are portable natural objects that are not artifacts, but have cultural relevance.  These frequently include objects like faunal remains (e.g. animal bones from butchering animals) or floral/botanical remains (e.g. seeds, nuts, carbonized wood).  Ecofacts are often byproducts produced by human behavior that may be intentional (e.g. burned corn cobs related to ritual behavior) or unintentional (e.g. fire-cracked rocks damaged by exposure to high-temperatures from cooking).  Some items, such as a bone with cut marks from butchering the carcass, could be considered either an artifact or ecofact and the distinction is less important than the type of information that is potentially recoverable.  Some ecofacts can be used to reconstruct human behavior (e.g. cutmarks reveal butchering patterns) and some can be used to reconstruct past environments (e.g. pollen indicates past floral environments).  Ecofacts are often fragile materials and preservation can be very uneven between sites and regions.  Examples: 1) In the Midwest, bone preservation can be excellent due to favorable soil conditions while bone in the Southeast is more likely to be degraded by acidic soil.  2) In the arid Southwest, wood can be preserved unharmed for centuries while only carbonized remains might be recovered in the more humid eastern U.S. 


Excavation is used to investigate and recover subsurface artifacts, ecofacts, and features from an archaeological site.  Excavation is usually targeted towards either answering specific archaeological research questions or the mandated salvage of endangered cultural materials prior to their destruction.  Very few archaeological sites are ever excavated and of these, usually only a portion of a site is excavated.  Even when a site is in imminent danger of complete destruction, archaeologists almost never attempt full recovery of an entire site.  There are three primary reasons for sampling: 1) Feasibility.  Excavation is expensive, labor intensive, and produces large amounts of material that must then be analyzed, reported, and stored.  Every day spent excavating cultural materials in the field will require multiple days just to process the resulting collections.  2) Redundancy.  It is not necessary to excavate an entire site when a representative sample will yield the same results.  All archaeological collecting is intended as sampling.  3) Conservation.  Given the finite, non-renewable nature of cultural resources, it is unethical to excavate sites that are not endangered except to answer specific research questions.  Archaeologists leave as much cultural material undisturbed as possible so that future researchers will be able to apply new technologies and ask new questions of cultural resources.  These three reasons are also central to a growing shift in archaeological investigation to use non-invasive and non-destructive geophysical surveys as much as possible to minimize the need for manual excavation.


Features are non-portable human-made remains that cannot be removed without altering or destroying their form.  Features can be simple (e.g. a clay hearth for cooking) or a composite (e.g. an architectural structure that is the sum of many smaller individual features that represent the foundation of the building).  In the Midwest, common features include molds (the decomposed remains of prehistoric posts or stakes), thermal features (e.g. hearths, earth ovens), pit features (e.g. storage pits, trash pits), and mortuary features (burials, cremations).  In most American archaeology, features are found below the surface because they have been buried (e.g. a site in a floodplain buried by annual flood deposited silt) or because they were constructed below grade (e.g. a human burial).  Shallow or disturbed sites may have no intact features below the surface.  In some cultural contexts, features may be observed above-ground (e.g. the stacked stone walls of a southwestern pueblo) or are effectively indistinguishable from the ground (e.g. earthen walls forming a Midwestern earthwork).  Most features have relatively discrete boundaries in order to be identified as such.  Features may contain artifacts and ecofacts and those within features are usually considered to be more useful for research because they have clearer context and associations than identical artifacts not contained within features.

Geophysical survey

In recent years, new technologies have been applied to document subsurface cultural resources to accompany or even replace a traditional survey.  Most non-archaeologists are aware of Ground penetrating radar (GPR), but there are other types of ground-based geophysical survey such as magnetometry, electrical resistance, electromagnetic conductivity, and more.  Each tool detects different phenomena such as slight changes in the local magnetic field from areas associated with intense burning or slight differences in soil moisture that indicate where the matrix has been disturbed by human activity.  Each tool produces either 2D or 3D visualizations that indicate the locations of possible cultural resources (and possibly some idea of the nature of those resources).  Although these are usually expensive, highly technical endeavors, they can produce impressive amounts of information about a site that may complement or surpass traditional survey methods.  Geophysical surveys are non-destructive and non-intrusive, which can make them more desirable than destructive excavation methods of data recovery.  It is generally necessary to ground-truth the results of a geophysical survey to assess the accuracy of the findings.  For example ground-truthing might include using a soil probe, auger, or manual excavation to test areas where geophysical anomalies were detected.


A site's matrix refers to the physical medium that surrounds, holds, and supports archaeological remains.  This is usually soil, but could include other mediums like gravel or volcanic ash.  Archaeologists document the matrix in many ways, but usually texture (e.g. sand; silt loan) and color at a minimum.  Color is documented with the Munsell color system, which produces a quantified notation (e.g. "10 YR 3/2").  Archaeologists document the matrix for a number of reasons, such as indicating the level of decay, determining the stratigraphic position of artifacts, and to enable reconstruction of the prevailing natural environment in ancient times.  Archaeologists often collect soil samples for additional post-field analysis.  For example, the matrix of a site often holds non-visible archaeological evidence like plant seeds that can be recovered through a laboratory process called flotation.  The physical matrix of a site is altered by long-term human activity and some of it is literally the decomposed remains of organic debris.  It is increasingly common for archaeologists to utilize non-destructive geophysical survey to collect data about the matrix, especially prior to excavation.  Geophysical survey is used to measure differences in soil chemistry (e.g. phosphate analysis), magnetism from burned/heated features (e.g. magnetometry), and other soil properties (e.g. electrical resistance; ground penetrating radar).  Geophysical surveys are used to predict where features are likely to be found, to delineate boundaries of human activity, and to approximate the general layout and structure of a site beyond what is usually possible with excavation.


In contrast to features, many habitation sites may include a midden.  A midden is a stratigraphic layer within the matrix that represents the approximate ancient living surface and may or may not include features.  A midden is often an undifferentiated organic layer of sediment that includes many artifacts, ecofacts, and features and is the result of heavy utilization of an area.  Over time, dropped or decomposed materials become incorporated into the living surface and alter the physical composition of the soil.  Some archaeologists use the term midden in a more restricted usage to refer specifically to an area used for discarding refuse.  Middens can sometimes be extremely dense.  For example, in areas where shellfish are consumed in quantity, massive piles of discarded shells accumulated to form mounds or layers as people effectively buried their settlements in their own non-biodegradable rubbish.


Prehistoric literally means "before history" and is used to refer to time periods where there is no written historical record (i.e. written documents; photographs or drawings, etc.)  Most of the human past is prehistoric; the only way in which we will ever know about these cultures is to interpret the archaeological record.  Since the point at which the historical record begins varies from place to place, the arbitrary point where prehistory ends also varies.  The term "proto-historic" is sometimes used to reference the transition period from prehistory to history where written records are sparse or indirect accounts.  There are effectively four different kinds of archaeology in the United States: prehistoric, historic, nautical, and old world/classical archaeology.  These four divisions are separate enough that they can be considered as separate disciplines with little overlap: each has its own practitioners, academic programs, peer-reviewed journals, and museums.  The majority of American archaeologists study prehistoric Native American cultures with very few who cross-over into any of the other kinds.


Provenience is one of the most important concepts in archaeological investigations as it is a description of the location where an artifact or some other cultural phenomenon was discovered, collected, or detected.  Provenience can take diverse forms and is not always precise.  At its most precise, provenience could be denoted be geographic coordinates accurate to a few centimeters.  A broader provenience might only indicate a specimen's county (or county-equivalent) of origin (e.g. Montgomery County, Ohio), city (e.g. Dayton, Ohio), parcel (e.g. Smith Farm), site (e.g. Lichliter site) or similar geographic/administrative designator.  County-level provenience is the broadest level that would be useful for most archaeological research and even then, only for certain types of research questions (e.g. distributional studies of a particular artifact type).

The most useful provenience information indicates the origin of a specimen within a site's boundaries, but this information could take many forms.  Common examples on an archaeological site:

  • An object could have 2D (X,Y) or 3D (X, Y, Z) coordinates that indicate a specific point on a grid, measured in centimeters relative to an arbitrary fixed point.
    • Example: A projectile point is mapped with a Total Station to indicate its coordinates relative to the site grid.  Its position is recorded as 25.15 North, 100.75 East, 26.25 Elevation.  (25.15 would refer to 25.15 meters, or 25 meters and 15 centimeters, north of an arbitrary grid benchmark.)
  • An object could have two sets of measurements that specify its distance from two known points on a site grid ("triangulation").
    • Example: A stone axe is recorded as being 8.71 meters from 25N 100E and 6.25 meters from 30N 100E.  These measurements can be converted into coordinates, but that conversion would usually take place in post-field processing.  Such measurements are often taken manually with long surveying tapes.
  • An object could have a provenience that specifies a particular excavation unit.  Only the name or coordinates of the unit would be recorded, meaning that the artifact could have originated within any part of that particular area of the matrix.
    • Example: A ceramic sherd is recovered from an excavation unit that is labeled as "25N 100E" which is a 2x2 meter square unit of soil whose southwest corner is located at 25 meters North and 100 meters East of an arbitrary grid benchmark.  Alternately, the unit could have a different designation, such as "Trench 1, Unit 4", or "Unit G6" that reflects a different form of site grid. 
  • An artifact could have a provenience that references a cultural feature, which is a type of "natural" unit that is an entirely different form of information than the arbitrary coordinates of the previous examples.
    • Example: A mussel shell hoe was recovered from a trash pit designated Feature 2016.1.

Note that in most modern excavations, there is an expectation that some indicator of depth, elevation, or stratigraphic position is recorded.  This may be described simply as its "level."  If one were using the above examples, there would be additional information that further specifies the fixed or relative vertical position.

  • An artifact from the unit 25N 100E was recovered at a depth of 27 centimeters below the surface.  This might be noted as 27 centimeters (which references a flat plane at that elevation) or alternately the less specific 25-30 centimeters (which references a volume of soil that includes all elevations between those two measurements).

The vertical position of an object may not refer to a specific measured depth and may instead refer to a stratigraphic layer on some sites.  In sites where such layers can be defined, it would always be preferable to use those layers in favor of arbitrary coordinates.  Such layers may exist across a site (e.g. a definable midden stratum) or they may be fills within a feature (e.g. a lens of ash and charcoal in a trash pit).

  • Example: A sloping rockshelter has identifiable stratigraphic layers, each of which lay above or beneath other layers.  Each layer is assigned a designator to denote its position within a sequence, such as "Layer 16A". 

It is also possible for an object to have both natural and arbitrary provenience information recorded.

  • Example: An object's provenience could be "Feature 2016.1, Layer 16A; 25.15N 100.75E 26.25 elevation"

It is a normal, expected, and acceptable practice to use all of the above types of provenience within a single project.  For example, a principle investigator might choose to record precise 3D coordinates for formal tools (e.g. projectile points), but only assign a unit-level provenience to the less important artifacts.  In this case, the investigator has decided to collect more detailed information for the special finds; an entirely expected and appropriate field methodology. 

On large sites where multiple excavations have been undertaken over a long period of time, it is common for multiple types of provenience to be used on a single site as different investigators utilize different field methodologies.  It is also common for methodologies to be modified over time within a single excavation as investigators learn more about a site and modify their strategies and tactics as new questions arise.  In a long-tenured excavation, it is likely that methodologies will be adjusted as resources change.  [Within the Lichliter excavation, the principle investigator used at least three completely different systems of provenience.  Prior investigations by an amateur collector utilized a completely different system.  Any future work on the site will undoubtedly utilize a system completely different from any of the previous four.]


A refit is a relationship between two or more objects that were once part of the same original composite object.  Refits can be used to reconstruct objects from fragments, allowing a superior analysis of the composite in comparison to analysis of its subordinate pieces.  Although refits can be useful in enhancing the research potential of individual objects, refits enable archaeologists to build interpretations of human behavior at large scales.  For this reason, it is important to recognize and document the nature of the relationship between objects, because refits can be used to build many different kinds of interpretations.  For example, refits can be used for reconstructing prehistoric behavior (e.g. establishing a link between a house and a nearby trash pit); demonstrating contemporaneity between features or activity areas within a site (e.g. demonstrating that two houses are from the same period or occupation); and understanding the process by which an object was created or modified (e.g. chipped stone tools). 

Refits generally represent some kind of breakage and can be the result of many different kinds of processes.  The breakage could have occurred during the object's use-life, intentional breakage reflecting social or ritual behavior, or breakage that naturally occurs over time as objects are affected by natural (e.g. freeze and thaw) or cultural (e.g. plowing) processes.  For example, objects of chipped stone are directly the result of intentional controlled breakage to create the object; such refits allow an analyst to reverse-engineer the manufacturing process of a tool.  In contrast, most ceramic breakage is accidental during use; ceramic refits may be used to interpret social divisions within a community, disposal patterns, etc.  Although American archaeologists implicitly make refits on a continual basis, they are not always described explicitly or referred to as such.


A site is a spatial clustering of archaeological data, which is usually composed of artifacts, ecofacts, and features.  Common examples include campsites, workshops, quarries, villages, cities, middens, kill sites, cemeteries, ritual sites, and more.  Sites can be highly variable in density with some being composed of just a handful of artifacts.  Each state maintains an inventory of all recorded sites within its boundaries (e.g. Ohio has 50,000+ recorded prehistoric sites), but documented sites are only a sample of the much larger population of undocumented/undiscovered sites that exist.  Few sites have discrete, recognizable boundaries (e.g. a wall; a ditch; a river); most are defined by an arbitrary boundary reflecting a drop-off in artifact density.  Many sites are the accumulation of non-contemporary archaeological material over long periods of time or from different occupations ("components") separated by lengthy intervals.  Most American archaeological sites in most regions are neither deep nor buried and in many cases have artifacts visible on the surface.  American sites that are deep with multiple cultural stratigraphic layers tend to be some of the most important and dramatic sites (e.g. bison jumps, sites in very active floodplains, pueblo trash middens, etc.) but these are not representative of the majority of extant sites.  The most numerous types of sites in all regions are sparse, shallow, have few subsurface features, and represent temporary or intermittent habitations by hunter-gatherer populations. 

Special Find

Artifacts from a site might number in the dozens or the hundreds of thousands, but only a small subset are usually objects of high individual significance for archaeological research.  These unusual objects are termed "special finds" or "diagnostic" to differentiate them from the rest.  A special find might be a finished, formal tool (e.g. an arrowhead), an ornament (e.g. a stone pendant) or an object that has some characteristic that represents greater research potential (e.g. a ceramic sherd that includes the rim of the pottery vessel).  An object does not have to be complete to be a special find.  Most of the artifacts from most sites are not formal tools or ornaments, but there are differences based on material type.  Most of the lithic objects are likely to be waste products ("debitage") from the construction or use of stone tools.  For example, there will almost always be more flint chips ("flakes") from the manufacture of arrowheads than finished arrowheads.  Ceramic artifacts are likely to include far more broken earthenware fragments ("sherds") than complete or intact vessels.  Faunal artifacts (e.g. a hoe made from a mussel shell) can be difficult to spot because they are often obscured by the co-occurrence of more numerous bones from the butchering and processing of animal carcasses (ecofacts). 

Individual artifacts can be special for many idiosyncratic reasons unique to a site or time period.  For example, ceramic sherds that include crushed mussel shell as a temper would be a significant find on certain sites of a particular time period in southern Ohio, while the same artifacts would be unremarkable and common if found at a temporally later site.  Some objects may not be modified in any way but their presence is itself notable, such as marine shells found at a site in southern Ohio where they would represent trade goods.  In a few cases, the context of an object might elevate an otherwise unremarkable specimen to the status of a special find, such as unmodified animal bones found in association with a human burial.

Stratigraphic layers/Stratum (singular); Strata (plural)

Archaeological sites are inherently three-dimensional.  Within a matrix, there are usually layers resting above and below each other like the layers of a cake.  Some of these layers originate from past human activity and incorporate artifacts, ecofacts, and features.  Other layers are culturally sterile and originate from geological or biological processes.  A midden would be an example of a stratigraphic layer that represents an ancient living surface or a deposition of cultural materials.  In an undisturbed context, the layers at the bottom of the sequence are those that were deposited first and consequently are the oldest; the youngest layers would be found at the top.  It is common to find subsurface features (e.g. a trash pit; a burial) where past cultures excavated down into older layers, therefore depth in and of itself is not necessarily indicative of age or position in a temporal sequence.  Archaeologists document these layers by excavating down through all available layers to expose a vertical 2D surface.  This vertical face can then photographed and mapped as a "section" or "profile."  In most cases, sites do not have complex stratigraphy unless there has been: significant cutting or filling of the landform (e.g. construction of an earthen mound); many separate episodes of disposition (e.g. disposal of large amounts of trash over a long period of time); or dynamic natural activity (e.g. frequent flooding in a river floodplain that deposits soil).  When sites do have identifiable stratigraphic levels, it is usually preferable to excavate the site one complete layer at a time in its "natural levels."  [This common terminology is confusing because it can be misinterpreted by non-archaeologists to imply that the origin of a layer is geological rather than cultural, which is not the intended meaning.]  For comparison, consider that most sites are shallow and have no identifiable stratigraphic layers; the preferred method of excavation would be to excavate the site by regular units of measurement (e.g. 10 centimeters at a time), which are "arbitrary levels."  [In this project, we adopted ArcheoLINK's less confusing terminology to describe all "natural levels" as "fills" and all "arbitrary levels" as "segments."]  Although most sites themselves may not have definable stratigraphic levels, it is common for subsurface features to be composed of many different stratigraphic fills (e.g. a lens of ash and charcoal in a trash pit) that need to be documented for interpretation.


Surveys can take many forms but are primarily undertaken to identify new archaeological sites.  Surveys comprise the majority of archaeological fieldwork.  Most surveys are undertaken because of a mandated requirement to document how cultural resources will be affected by construction projects that are publically funded, on public land, or require federal permitting.  Most surveys are conducted by for-profit Cultural Resource Management (CRM) companies who have been contracted by a private developer or government entity.  A lesser amount of survey work is conducted by government agencies (primarily on federally managed properties), university field schools, and museums/historical societies.  In a setting where cultural resources are expected to be visible on the surface (e.g. plowed agricultural fields; areas with little vegetation), a typical survey would be a field crew walking in regular transects across a parcel of land.  Any artifacts visually encountered would be documented, mapped, and collected.  Some encountered materials might not be collected from the field if they are common (e.g. nails, bricks) or if they occur in large, dense quantities.  In areas where artifacts are not expected to be found or visible on the surface (e.g. heavy vegetation; buried sites), shovel-testing is a common substitute.   Shovel-testing is the excavation of small, shallow holes at regular intervals to look for subsurface cultural materials.  In recent years, many traditional surveys are being accompanied by geophysical survey.  Most surveyed sites will never proceed to an excavation, but most excavations are preceded by a survey.

Terminology FAQ: Why do archaeologists universally mispronounce "provenance" as "provenience"?

They do not, because these terms do not mean the same thing.  Provenience is an unfamiliar term to many museum professionals, but is one of the most important concepts in archaeological investigations.  Provenience is a description of the location where an artifact or some other cultural phenomenon was recovered.  In contrast, provenance is sometimes used to mean the origin of an object or phenomenon, but in museum curation (esp. art museums) it is most commonly used to refer to the record of ownership (or chain of custody) of an object.  Provenance is a term seldom used in American archaeology, especially in regard to the archaeological research collections discussed here. 

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