This is a glossary of words with particular meanings in archaeology. Because they have special meanings, we also call them jargon.

The foundation of this glossary is the one assembled for the 2001 special issue of Early Georgia called ‚“Resources at Risk.” Click here to read more about the issue and download it in PDF format.

Please write us here if there’s another word you wonder about and think we might add.

abiotic

environmental features that are physical rather than biological, and thus characterized by the absence of life; opposite of biotic

aborigine

of, or pertaining to, an original or native inhabitant of a region (the word aborigine comes from the Latin phrase ab origine, meaning ‘from the beginning’)

absolute dating techniques

the methods that determine when an event occurred in calendar years; usually noted as years before the present, with ‚“present” meaning 1950

ad

like AD, but indicates uncorrected radiocarbon dates

AD

from the Latin anno domini, designates the period after year 1 in the Christian or Gregorian calendar

agriculture

the intensive cultivation of soil and production of crops; farming

anthropogenic

of or relating to or as a result of human impacts on nature; originating in human activity

anthropology

the study of humans and their cultural behavior from a holistic perspective, involving (in New World academics) these four sub-fields: archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistics, and physical anthropology

archaeological record

the material remains of past human activities, including any features or alteration of the landscape

archaeological resources

artifacts, sites, their contexts within the physical and cultural environments, and the information that can be garnered from them

archaeological site

a place where human activity took place and material remains were left behind

archaeology

the study of past human culture by analyzing the material remains (sites and artifacts) people left behind; the science of archaeology involves recording, interpreting, and recreating past human life

Archaic

a New World cultural period, about 10,000-3000 BP, marked by mobile gathering-and-hunting life and a mostly egalitarian social organization

arrowheads

stone points that were small and light enough to have been attached to an arrow shaft and shot from a bow; the term PPK is a more general term.

artifact

any object made, modified, or used by humans

assemblage

a group of artifacts found together that were used at the same time or for similar tasks

atlatl

an early weapon that increased both the force and distance that a spear could be thrown, used primarily for large game

The word is a corruption of the Nahuatl word ahtlatl (Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs of the Basin of Mexico area around modern Mexico City).

attribute

a characteristic of an artifact, such as size, shape, or color

band

a mostly egalitarian form of social organization, based on kinship and marriage

basketry

the art of making baskets or other items constructed from woven fibers or other flexible materials

bc

like BC, meaning before Christ, but for uncorrected radiocarbon dates

BC

before Christ in the Christian or Gregorian calendar, or the period before year 1

biface

a stone tool, such as a projectile point, that has been modified on both sides (faces)

biotic

of or relating to or resulting from living beings; opposite of abiotic

bioturbation

changes in the soil due to natural processes done by living things, which include the action of roots, worms, and digging creatures, etc.

These processes cause the movement of and changes to artifacts and features after deposition.

blade

a long, thin flake of stone that’s produced in some techniques of stone tool making

bp

like BP, a designation for years before present, with 1950 the index year that’s considered “the present,” but for uncorrected radiocarbon dates

BP

designates years before present, with 1950 the index year that’s considered “the present,” for corrected radiocarbon dates

built environment

human-made constructions that, at least loosely, may be called buildings, plus all sorts of architecture and engineered structures

cabotage

navigation of coastal waters

cache

a set or group of artifacts placed aside and intended for later use

Cartesian coordinate system

a three-dimensional coordinate system in which the coordinates of a point are its distances from each of three intersecting perpendicular planes along lines parallel to the other two

ceramics

pottery, or items made from clay and heated in a fire, which chemically changes the soil to a more durable yet brittle material

chiefdom

the territory and people lead by a hereditary chief; also, a common term for a form of human social organization that incorporates multiple communities into a single hierarchical social unit that has, as a basic part of its structure, institutionalized differences in social status (ranking)

Recent researchers have challenged the use of this concept for peoples who lived across Southeastern North America in prehistory.

chronology

the ordered arrangement of cultures, events, or objects in time

circa

from the Latin word meaning approximately; often used before a date, and abbreviated “ca.” (for example, ca. 1530)

clan

a social unit tracing descent from a common ancestor; the ancestor may be real or mythical

classification

taxonomy, or a system of arranging artifacts into groups or categories according to certain set of criteria, usually shared qualities or characteristics

The term is not limited to artifacts, and may be used for types of social organization and myriad other concepts.

commensal

a relationship in which two or more organisms (e.g., humans and mice) live in close association and in which one may derive benefit from the other, and neither harms the other

compliance project

an archaeological project, involving survey and possibly excavation, as required by law at the Federal or State level

component

archaeologists use this term to refer to a particular period (or era) in which an archaeological site was occupied; a site occupied in more than one period is referred to as a multi-component site

context

the location or placement of an artifact, feature, or site, including its relationship to other artifacts, features, and the surrounding environment

Context includes the soil around archaeological materials. Sometimes, the context of artifacts is more informative than the artifacts!

convento

Spanish term for a complex of buildings, often encircled by a wall, in which Catholic friars or nuns live and do much of their work

core

in lithics, it’s a nucleus of stone from which flakes have been removed

cultural anthropology

the study of modern humans and their learned behaviors and culture

cultural resource management (CRM)

in general, this term applies to the recording and investigation of archaeological sites uncovered or to be impacted by planned public construction and engineering projects, although it extends to archival research and other undertakings; see also public archaeology

culture

the learned beliefs and behaviors shared, and passed on, by the members of a society

culture history

the descriptive who, where, and when of a particular culture

cuneiform

an early form of recordation (writing) used in Mesopotamia from the third to the first millennium BC, consisting of symbols carved into clay using a reed tool

curate (curation)

to preserve and protect an item (e.g., an artifact) in perpetuity; also, to resharpen and reuse, usually, a lithic tool

De Soto, Hernando

Hernando De Soto was one of the first European explorers traveling into the interior of the Southeastern US (in the early 1500s)

debitage

stone debris that results from making stone tools, although some of the debris also may be used as tools

dendrochronology

a dating technique based on the number and variation in tree rings; usually, there is one ring for each year of growth and specific climatic changes are evident in thickness of ring

Dendrochronologists compare the growth rings from many trees or pieces of wood found on archaeological sites to make a combined plot of ring thickness that stretches back many centuries. By comparing tree-ring dates with radiocarbon dates, scientists realized that radiocarbon dates did not quite match calendar dates, and needed to be calibrated.

depositional factors

the effects, either natural (like flooding) or human-induced (like plowing), on the material remains and features of the archaeological record. Depositional factors must be taken into consideration before any interpretation or dating of a site can occur.

diachronic

over time, through time; the term especially refers to change that happens as time passes; contrast with synchronic

diagnostic artifact

an item that was only made or used for a limited period, and thus indicates use during a particular period or by a certain group who made or used it; there can also be diagnostic assemblages

disturbance processes

after an artifact or place is abandoned, it can be affected by many types of disturbance processes, e.g., percolating rainwater, erosion, digging creatures, later human occupation including being trampled underfoot, etc.

drip line

a small but distinct linear pattern in the soil that forms when rainwater is focused to drip in certain places; they are an example of a disturbance process

A tree with a dense crown of leaves can have a drip line around its outer extent. The edge of the roof of a rock shelter can produce a drip line. Likewise, the edge of a roof can produce a drip line, if there’s nothing to divert the rainwater (e.g., a gutter).

ecology

the study of the relationships between organisms (here, humans) and their environment

ecosystem

a dynamic complex of organisms (biota), including humans, and their physical environment, interacting as a functional unit; they may vary greatly in size and composition, and display functional relationships within and between systems

elite

persons having the highest sociopolitical rank and the most influence over other members of the community and society; they have more status than the common people

environment

the natural world, usually in reference to a particular geographic area; archaeologists often describe the environment with reference to landforms, watercourses, climate, and food resources

ethnography

a descriptive study or report of peoples and their material and social culture

excavation

the systematic, planned digging of an archaeological site in order to obtain information about the past human activity

experimental archaeology

activities that investigate the natural or human-made processes that produced and/or modified artifacts and archaeological sites

feature

evidence at archaeological sites which are not artifacts

Examples of features include fire pits or hearths, trash pits, post holes from structures, wells, chimneys and chimney bases, building foundations, and burials.

field notes

the written materials, including notes, drawings, sketches, etc., that an archaeologist takes during a field project

Field notes are often held (curated) just like artifacts, and are augmented by other records such as photographs and videos.

field work

archaeological investigations in the out-of-doors; include surface collecting and excavations

flake

flattish debris from stone tool making that may or may not be used as a tool

flintknapper (knapper)

a person who makes stone tools

friary

the residence of Spanish priests or members of certain Catholic orders, especially the mendicant orders (Franciscans, Augustinians, Dominicans, and Carmelites)

funerary objects

goods, either everyday or special, that are placed in a burial; they often signify the social status of their owner (leader, shaman, mother, husband, etc.)

geographic information systems (GIS)

computer systems for recording, storing, and manipulating information that is linked to geographic location (spatial data); a GIS database is often represented by layers, each a different type of information (e.g., soil type, land-use, topography)

geology

the study of the origin, structure and history of the earth, including the processes that act on it

global positioning system (GPS)

a satellite technology used to pinpoint ground locations that archaeologists use when doing fieldwork, including to make accurate, detailed maps, or for locating previously-recorded archaeological sites

gourd

an early plant domesticate in Southeastern North America, in the pumpkin, squash, and cucumber family; it was used more for its vessel/utensil characteristics when dried,
than as food

grid

two sets of imaginary uniformly spaced lines that cross at right angles and are used to divide an archaeological site into units and allow accurate measure of an object or feature’s location on the site; used to measure and record provenience (latitude and longitude comprise a grid)

ground penetrating radar (GPR)

a remote sensing device that sends a radar pulse deep into the soil, allowing the archaeologist to interpret the anomalies or images that are detected

historic preservation

besides being a social movement aimed at heritage conservation, it is more formally defined as the process of sustaining the form and extent of historic properties; also see preservation

historic/history

the portion of the past defined by the presence of written records

holism

an approach used by anthropologists that emphasizes the whole rather than parts of human society, including the physical and cultural influences on human behavior

horticulture

the cultivation of fruits, vegetables and flowers; gardening

hunter-gatherers

Sometimes instead written gatherer-hunters, to emphasize that gathering usually provides a most of the calories, hunter-gathers are peoples who subsist on foods obtained from the wilds, from foraging and hunting species that are not domesticated; hunting-and-gathering peoples tend to live in social groups that are relatively non-hierarchical and politically egalitarian.

ice age

any of a series of climatically cold periods marked by alternating periods of glaciation and warming

impact

any effect on the archaeological record; in most cases, this term is used to describe the damage construction and other development projects do to archaeological resources

in situ

In situ is properly italicized because it is a Latin term; it refers to the original placement of an artifact or feature encountered during survey or excavation

kill site

a location where an animal or animals were killed and sometimes butchered

knapping

controlled breakage of suitable stones to make stone tools (lithics)

level

a layer of soil in an excavation; it can be measured in regular units (e.g., every 10 cm) or may correspond to natural strata

linguistics

the study of language and culture and their interaction

lithics

stone fashioned into artifacts, or used as tools

looter

a person who illegally collects artifacts or destroys archaeological resources; many do this to make a profit

majolica

a visually distinctive painted earthenware pottery that the Spanish brought to the New World that is diagnostic of sites of the Early Colonial period

material remains

any artifacts, features or other items used or produced by humans

midden

an area used for trash disposal; may be seen as a dark, humic layer in an archaeological site

missionary

person sent out by a church to convert others to their religion

Mississippian

a prehistoric period in the Southeastern North America, from about AD 900-1540, characterized by peoples who practiced maize agriculture, lived in chiefdoms, had populous villages and zones of dispersed housing, and constructed earthen mounds in some of their villages

mitigation

the excavation of a site to obtain archaeological information before it is destroyed by a construction project or other development

Mitigation removes the significant information a site that is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places has, so that the site may be destroyed or disturbed without the significant information it contains being lost.

monolithic

made or formed of a single large block of stone, or, sometimes, simply a single very large thing

mound

in Southeast North America, an earthen construction, built by humans during one or multiple building episodes

For example, some mounds in the Southeast are burial mounds. After each burial a fresh cap of earth was added to the existing mound. In some cases known from late prehistory, the leader, or chief, would reside in a house on top of the mound. When he died, the house was burned, then covered with a new cap of earth and a newly-built house.

Sometimes mounds are referred to as temple-mounds, in recognition that some had buildings atop them that were used for civic-ceremonial activities, instead of merely being the residence of a leader or chief.

multi-component

an archaeological site occupied in more than one period

Native American

a member of the aboriginal peoples of North and South America, or pertaining to their culture

Neolithic

a prehistoric period generally characterized by the development of agriculture, use of ceramics, and the manufacture of technically advanced stone tools; the term is applied worldwide, not just in the Americas

New World

the geographical landmass, area, or macroregion that includes North, Central, and South America, and the Caribbean

obsidian hydration dating

a geochemical dating technique that determines the age of an obsidian artifact by measuring how deep water molecules have been absorbed into the fresh surface of the flake or tool

The hydration process is affected by temperature, specific characteristics of that particular obsidian, etc., making obsidian hydration dating sometimes difficult to interpret.

occupation

a place with archaeological evidence of ancient use; often used by archaeologists interchangeably with “site“.

A site may have multiple occupations, however; occupations can be considered to date to a particular archaeologically identifiable period, or an occupation can be used more loosely to indicate ancient use of a place.

Old World

the geographical landmass, area, or macroregion that includes Europe, Asia, and Africa

paleobotany

the study of fossil or ancient plant remains

Paleoindian

a cultural period from about 12,000-10,000 BP characterized by cooperative gathering and hunting, and the high mobility of small groups (bands) of people

The Paleoindian (sometimes Palaeoindian) period is the first widely identifiable culture in the New World.

paleolithic

the earliest designated Old World cultural period beginning about 750,000 years ago, characterized by the first chipped stone tools

paleontology

the study of fossil remains of plants and animals

percussion flaking

method for making stone tools that involves striking a lump of tool stone with another object, often stone, thereby detaching waste flakes

period

a length of time defined by having similar features or conditions; Georgia’s prehistory is commonly defined as including the Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian periods

physical anthropology

the study of human and other primate behavior, evolution, and adaptation

political economy

system of economics and political structure within a particular culture

ponder

to think about something carefully, especially before making a decision or reaching a conclusion; visit the Society for Georgia Archaeology’s Weekly Ponder

post hole

a hole that is dug to receive an upright timber for a building, wall, or other structure

As the structure decays, traces of the posts are left in the soil, usually seen as a stain (the post) within a stain (the hole), if well preserved (see feature).

pot hunter

someone who takes artifacts from sites for non-scientific reasons, such as to add to their collection or to sell

Pot hunting on federal and most state lands is illegal. In Georgia, it’s also illegal to pot hunt on private lands without the written permission of the landowner.

potassium-argon dating

a technique used to date material remains based on the rate at which radioactive potassium reverts to argon when it decays; potassium-argon dating is useful on remains that are too old to be dated by radiocarbon methods (e.g., more than about 50,000 years old)

potsherd or sherd

a broken piece of pottery or a fragment of a ceramic vessel

Pre-Paleoindian (also Pre-Clovis)

refers to aboriginal occupations of the New World that date to the time before Paleoindian or Clovis times

Although somewhat controversial, evidence is mounting that humans occupied the Americas before Paleoindian times.

prehistoric or prehistory

the period of time before written records; the prehistoric period varies from region to region

preservation

the act of maintaining the form and integrity of a structure or building as it presently exists, and halting any further deterioration or decay; it does not include any significant rebuilding

primitive technologist

a specialist in the manual arts and skills of the past; someone who can replicate and often interpret use of by-gone technologies

privy

an outhouse, or a toilet located in a small shed outside a house or other building

projectile point/knife (PP/K or PPK)

refers to stone points that were attached to spears or arrows, or stone tools used as a knife. Many stone tools commonly referred to as arrowheads were too large and heavy to have been attached to an arrow shaft and shot from a bow; the term PPK is a better choice.

provenience (provenance)

the exact location of an artifact or feature within a site, based on its placement in a grid and its depth below the ground surface

psychology

the science of mental processes and emotional behavior of humans

public archaeology

in general, this term applies to any archaeological projects undertaken with total or partial funding from public coffers (Federal, state, municipal, other); see also CRM archaeology

radiocarbon dating

a radiometric method of dating organic material that is based on the rate that unstable radioactive carbon-14 atoms, which are present in all living things (humans, trees, etc.), decay into carbon-12 and carbon-13 atoms

By comparing tree-ring dates with radiocarbon dates, scientists realized that the radiocarbon dates drift, or need to be calibrated, to reflect actual dates.

reconstruction

the process of describing, explaining, and interpreting all facets of life in a now extinct culture—from the ways people made a living, to the clothes they wore, to the type of social organization in which they participated.

The information for reconstruction often comes from detailed excavation, and is accumulated over time by all archaeologists.

regional analysis

the study of entire cultures or large sociopolitical units, especially through the investigation of change and continuity in settlement systems over a long period of time

relative dating techniques

methods that determine when an event occurred in relation to other events—before, simultaneously, after

relic

an object from a previous culture, an artifact

repartimiento

Spanish word referring to a system for drafting human labor used by the Spanish to force Native Americans to work for them for part of each year; the system had vast and negative consequences for Native Americans in Georgia and across the New World

reporting

a critical step in archaeological research, sometimes overlooked; after field work and laboratory analysis, document searches, and a period of thoughtfulness, a good, ethical archaeologist prepares a report on the investigations. Archaeology is by nature a destructive science, so reporting passes on the information to others, because that field work can never be replicated.

ritual

a set of behaviors, which perhaps may be termed a ceremony, usually performed for symbolic reasons; rituals may be regularly performed (e.g., daily, weekly, or seasonally), or they may be performed in conjunction with a specific event (e.g., births, birthdays, weddings, funerals); it is not unusual for food to be incorporated into or be associated with rituals

rock shelter

a relatively shallow cave in a cliff-face, some were occupied for extensive periods in prehistory

scraper

a stone tool designed for use in scraping hides, bones and other materials that has been flaked (knapped) on one side.

sedentism

refers to a social group’s lifeways when members live in one place, and are not normally mobile or migratory

seriation

a dating technique based on the popularity cycle of cultural styles that allows archaeologists to place objects in a chronology

settlement systems (or patterns)

the distribution of humans across the landscape and the cultural and environmental variables that affect that distribution

sherd

short for potsherd; potsherds are broken pieces of pottery or ceramics

site

any area showing evidence of human activity as revealed through artifacts and/or features

site steward

a volunteer who watches a site, reports on any activity such as vandalism and looting, and assists archaeologists and land owners in preserving the archaeological resources in the site

society

a society is an aggregate of people living more-or-less together in a more-or-less ordered community or group of communities; members of a society tend to have shared customs, laws, and civic-ceremonial institutions, but they may not—indeed, members may use different languages and even self-identify to different ethnicities. In short, societies vary greatly in scope and detail.

sociocultural

pertaining to social institutions, customs, and behaviors

sociology

the study of human social behavior and institutions, especially those in the modern world

sociopolitical

pertaining to both political structures and culture

species

in biology, and science in general, refers to a group of organisms that are similar and capable of exchanging genes, or interbreeding

The species is a natural taxonomic unit. Taxonomists classify organisms based on similarities. The convention is to use a two-part, or binomial, term for each species. People, for example, have the binomial Homo sapiens.

Stone Age

the earliest period of human culture, characterized by the use of stone tools

stone tool

an implement used in prehistoric cultures made from stone; see lithics

strata

the layers of soil and artifacts in a site

stratigraphy

the sequence of layers of soil and/or artifacts on a site; they generally lay atop one another like cake and frosting in a layer cake

If layers are undisturbed, the more recent layers will lie above the older layers. The relationship between the cultural deposits in the layers help the archaeologist understand what happened at a site over time.

subsistence

the means through which humans make a daily living, usually referring to how they procure food, e.g., through gathering-and-hunting, or through agriculture

survey

the systematic examination of the landscape for evidence of human activity, may be done by examining the ground surface for artifacts or by digging small probe holes (usually shovel tests)

synchronic

during a single period of time; contrast with diachronic

taphonomy

the study of the processes that effect organic remains in the formation of fossils; archaeologists use the term to refer to the processes that affect abandoned archaeological materials

temper

a substance added to the clay when manufacturing pottery, usually to harden or strengthen the material; temper may be shell, crushed stone, crushed pottery, sand, bone, Spanish moss, or other substances

trade goods

items that were traded over sometimes very long distances in history or prehistory; they tell us about interactions and relationships between cultures or peoples. Some traded goods were quite special and ownership of the items carried considerable prestige.

tree-ring dates

also called dendrochronology, this is a dating technique based on the number and variation in tree rings. Usually, there is one ring for each year of growth and specific climatic changes are evident in thickness of ring. Dendrochronologists compare the growth rings from many trees or pieces of wood found on archaeological sites to make a combined plot of ring thickness that stretches back many centuries. By comparing tree-ring dates with radiocarbon dates, scientists realized that radiocarbon dates did not quite match calendar dates, and needed to be calibrated.

tribe

a generally egalitarian form of social organization, with a more complex kinship system than a band, and having some temporary leadership roles

typology

the classification of a group of artifacts into types, and the study of their change through time, to help understand the development of human cultures

watercourse

a river, stream, brook, or even an artificial water channel such as a ditch or canal

Woodland

a cultural period in the Southeastern North America that dates between about 3000 and 1100 BP; it is characterized by increasing horticultural expertise, use of ceramics, and increasing sedentism and social complexity, when compared to the previous Archaic period

zooarchaeology

the study of animal remains from prehistoric and historic sites; suggests preferred food species, among other things