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Absolute dating: Establishment of age for archaeological materials providing an accurate calendrical date (in years). Also referred to as chronometric dating. An example would be radiocarbon dating (Carbon-14, C14).

Acheulian or Acheulean: A Palaeolithic industry of biface or handaxe manufacture (after St Acheul, France), found across Africa and much of West Asia and Europe.

Acquisition: Procurement of the raw material.

Activity area: An area of a site in which a specific activity was carried out, such as stone tool manufacture, pottery production or food preparation, and so on.

AD or A.D. (Anno Domini): Time scale used in archaeology. Latin for “In the Year of Our Lord”, taken as the birth of Christ supposedly in the year AD 1. Dates are counted forward after Christ. (BC is used to count years back before Christ).

Adobe: Sun baked mud mixed with straw (mudbrick) used for building construction.

Adze: A stone tool used for woodworking.

Aerial reconnaissance: An important survey method used for locating and recording archaeological sites.

Alidade: An optical surveying instrument used in combination with a plane table to map a site topographically or to locate features in the field.

Anasazi: A Navajo word meaning “ancient ones”. It is sometimes used as another name for the ancestral Pueblo peoples who inhabited the American Southwest more than 700 years ago. They are probably best known for the remains of their spectacular cliff dwellings at places such as Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado. Modern descendants are now believed to be living amongst the Hopi and Zuni communities in Arizona and New Mexico.

Anthropology: The study of humanity, including our past and present. In the US, the subject is divided into subfields: biological (physical) anthropology, cultural (social) anthropology, archaeology, and linguistic anthropology.

Antique: An antique is an old collectible item. Although the exact definition can vary from source to source, generally an antique is an object that is at least 50 to 100 years old. In the United States, customs law reserves the term for objects that are 100 years old or more. The price of an antique is determined according to its craftsmanship, authenticity, aesthetic appeal, age, rarity and condition. Antiques can include a variety of items ranging from furniture to decorative arts. Comparable items that are not particularly old are often referred to as vintage.

Antiquities: The term antiquities (generally used in the plural) often refers to the remains of art work and everyday items from the distant or ancient past, although the cut-off date is not always precise and may differ considerably between various institutions. Some organizations may suggest an arbitrary date for ease of reference, but an important differentiation is that most antiquities are ancient and are discovered as a result of archaeology. Antiquities can come from various parts of the globe, including the Classical cultures of Greece and Rome, ancient Egypt, the ancient Near Eastern civilizations, the Orient and the Iron Age Celtic World. Antiquities may include items such as buildings and works of art and even smaller objects, often referred to as portable antiquities. Portable finds, such as coins or jewelry, are frequently discovered by metal-detector users, people gardening or those merely out walking. Due to various legal restrictions in many countries about what can and can’t be collected, it is important to report finds accordingly, so that provenience and heritage will not be lost forever. 

Archaeology or archeology: The study of the human past through systematic recovery and analysis of material remains (artifacts and sites) (see here for more detailed information)

Archaeometry: The scientific analysis of archaeological materials.

Articulated: Bones that are left in their correct anatomical positions after tissue decay.

Artifact or artefact: Any object made, modified or used by people. Often found during archaeological excavation.

Assemblage: A group of artifacts or ecofacts found in the same context. Examples include remains from a particular activity such as stone tool manufacture, or objects that are found buried together in a grave.

Associations: The relationship of remains (artifacts and features) found on an archaeological site, based on provenience and context.

Atlatl or spear-thrower: A wood or bone projectile device. Used in many parts of North America before the arrival of the bow and arrow.

Australopithecine: A term used for the earliest pre-human hominids (genus Australopithecus) found in Africa between about 4 and 1 million years ago.

Awl: A pointed hand tool used for piercing small holes in materials such as leather, wood and bone.

BC or B.C.: Time scale used in archaeology. The abbreviation refers to “Before Christ” and dates are counted back before Christ in AD 1.

BCE or B.C.E.: “Before the Common Era”. Synonymous with BC. Refers to dates before the year AD 1. Intended as a non-religious approach to dates.

BP or B.P.: “Before Present”. An alternative notation to AD, BC, CE and BCE. Initially associated with radiocarbon dating, the year 1950 was chosen to represent ‘the present”. An example would be 1,000 B.P. = 1,000 years before 1950 AD, or approximately 1,000 AD.  

Backfill or backdirt: Sediment that has been excavated from an archaeological site, which is kept to one side (via the soil tip) until the end of the excavation period, when it is typically used to refill the area to prevent erosion or vandalizing.

Biface: A stone tool that has had flakes removed from both sides.

Biodegradation: The opposite of preservation in archaeology. All organic matter is subject to chemical breakdown by the environment unless fossilized.

Bipedal: Denotes walking on two feet.

Blade: Stone tool that is at least twice long as it is wide (and usually narrow).

Bog Body: Human remains preserved in peat bogs. Bog bodies have been discovered in various parts of northern Europe, including Tollund Man from Denmark and Lindow Man from England.

Bronze Age: The second stage of the “Three Age System” in which bronze became the main material for tools and weapons. This period occurs at different times in different parts of the world.

Bulb of percussion: A cone-shaped bulge on the fractured surface of a struck flake created during stone tool manufacture.

Burial: The deliberate disposal of the dead. A human interment may be flexed (coiled into fetal position) or extended (stretched out with arms at side), single or multiple, primary (laid down only once) or secondary (deliberate relocation as part of burial ritual).

Burin: A blade tool with a sharp working edge (a chisel-like head). Commonly assumed to be an engraving or carving tool to work bone, ivory, antler, soft stone and wood. However, use-wear analysis suggests that burins may have been multi-purpose tools.

Burnish: A polish applied to ceramics (by rubbing) before drying and firing for decorative purposes (also makes the vessel more watertight). Burnishing is usually carried out with a wooden or bone tool.

Butte: A naturally elevated landform with steep sides (flat-topped hill).

CADW: The government agency responsible for the protection and care of archaeology and heritage resources in Wales. Its functions are similar to those of English Heritage.

Cairn: A mound of stones intentionally put there by humans. Funerary Cairns cover graves or burial chambers.

Calibration: The term in archaeology refers to the adjustment of data to exclude error-producing information, such as with radiocarbon dating and dendrochronology.

Carbon-14 (14C) or radiocarbon dating: The most widely used chronometric dating method in archaeology for organic remains (seeds, bone, shell, wood, peat, charcoal, etc.) based on the principle that living things absorb the isotope carbon-14 when they are alive, and then release it after death at a constant rate, which can be measured. By calibrating it via tree-ring sequences, a date in calendar years can be established. 14C can theoretically date materials up to 50,000 years old.

Ceramics: A technical term used for deliberately fired clay or pottery.

Characterization or sourcing: Techniques used to find characteristic properties of raw material in order to determine its source of origin. Useful for determining the starting point of traded goods. Examples include thin-section analysis.

Chert: A generally opaque silicate mineral used as a raw material for the manufacture of stone tools. An example is flint.

Chipped-stone tool: A stone tool created by repetitive striking or the application of pressure.

Chronology: The ordering of archaeological materials into a sequence.

Chronometric dating: Any dating method that reports results as absolute ages (i.e., is tied to a calendrical date). Examples include, radiocarbon dating and thermoluminescence dating.

Conjoining: See refitting.

Conservation: The protection and care of archaeological remains (artifacts, features and sites). Stabilization and preservation of cultural resources sometimes includes the scientific process of cleaning, repairing and/or restoring artifacts to preserve them for future generations.

Context: The association that artifacts have to each other and the environment in which they are discovered. This is very important, as it can help archaeologists interpret the artifact’s meaning or use, and can contribute to our understanding of past human activities. The context is made up of the artifact’s immediate matrix, its provenience and its association with other archaeological and environmental remains. Once an artifact has been removed from its context, it is no longer archaeologically significant unless it has been appropriately documented by a heritage professional. 

Coprolite: Preserved or fossilized fecal material of humans or animals. They may contain information such as food residues or parasite eggs, which can in turn tell us about past diets, health and environments.

Core or nodule: The relatively hard lump source material used for stone tool making.

Cortex or cortical surface: A tough, dull-white powdery and porous coating found on the outer surface of newly exposed flint nodules. This may also include smooth weathered surfaces.

Council for British Archaeology (CBA): An independent charity that works to preserve and promote archaeology in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Council for Scottish Archaeology (CSA): An independent charity that works to preserve and promote archaeology in Scotland.

Cremation: A practice of burning the dead to ashes (which also includes pieces of burned bones and teeth) before disposal. In the ancient world cremation took place on an open pyre. Ashes are then either scattered or buried (for example, they are often put in an urn).

Cultural resource management (CRM): Refers to the safeguarding of threatened archaeological sites (from development) on public lands via salvage archaeology/rescue archaeology, which is carried out within the framework of US federal and state laws.

Cultural resources: Archaeological, historic and ethnographic remains that compose a culture’s nonrenewable heritage, including buildings, structures, objects, sites and landscapes.

Culture: The set of learned (non genetic) beliefs, behaviors, customs and materials generally shared by members of a society or group. Cultures are often passed down from one generation to another.

Cuneiform: A term used to explain early writing in the Middle East, which involved characteristic wedge-shaped symbols that were impressed with a sharpened reed (stylus) into a soft clay tablet.

Data: Information (records, facts or figures).

Datum point: A set point on an archaeological site from which all other measurements (vertical and horizontal) are taken.

Débitage or debris: Waste material created during stone tool production.

Decay: To rot or decompose.

Deface: To cause damage to the appearance of an object.

Dendrochronology or tree-ring dating: A dating method involving the analysis of tree-ring sequences. Variations in climatic conditions produce different growth patterns, which can tell us about environmental change, and that works as a basis for a chronology.

Direct percussion: A technique used in the manufacture of stone tools where flakes are directly struck from a core with a soft or hard hammer.

Disarticulated: A burial where the bones are not in correct anatomical positions.

Distal end: A term that relates to the manufacture of stone tools. It refers to the end of a flake that is furthest away from the striking platform.

Dorsal surface: A term that relates to the manufacture of stone tools. It refers to the side of a flake that carries the sharp ridge marks or scars from previous flake removals.

Ecofact: Naturally occurring material found in archaeological sites. Faunal (animal) or floral (plant) remains such as pollen, snail shells and beetle wings can provide information about past environments.

Egyptology: The study of ancient Egyptian civilization through archaeological remains.

English Heritage (EH): The government agency responsible for the protection and care of archaeology and heritage resources in England.

Ethnoarchaeology: Involves the study of people from the present to provide insights about past cultures.

Ethnography: Involves the study and comparisons of contemporary groups of people, such as the Mbuti pygmies.

Excavation: The methodical removal of soil deposits in reverse order (working back chronologically from the present day) to uncover and record archaeological remains, such as artifacts, ecofacts and features.

Experimental archaeology: One of the more recently developed directions in archaeological research, which studies how people did things in the past through experimental reconstruction under carefully controlled scientific conditions. Experimental archaeology uses a number of different methods and approaches in order to gain answers to specific research questions, in order to help with the interpretation of the archaeological record. For example, the recreation of the past using tools and techniques from that time can provide information about the way tools were made and how buildings may have been constructed.

Fauna: Bones and other animal remains found on archaeological sites. Faunal remains can provide information about past diets and environments.

Feature: A non-portable human-made element of an archaeological site that is often marked by a distinct stain in the soil. Because it is non-moveable it must be recorded, and photographed in the field. Examples of features include storage pits, postholes, hearths, house floors, large stone altars and walls. 

Flake: A piece of stone material removed from a core or another flake by striking. It carries a bulb of percussion.

Flexed burial: A human interment where the body is lying slightly to one side in the fetal position, with legs and arms bent and drawn towards the chest.

Flora: Plant remains found on archaeological sites. Floral remains can provide information about past diets and environments.

Forager: See hunter-gatherer.

Historical archaeology: The archaeological study of historically documented cultures (through material remains and written records).

Historic preservation: The management, protection and preservation of buildings, structures, artifacts, sites and landscapes that have historical or cultural significance, from destruction or deterioration.

History: The study of past occurrences and culture based on written records. In some instances, oral sources may also be available.

Hominid: Part of the family of Hominidae, which includes both extinct and modern forms of humans (Homo and Australopithecines).

Homo: The hominid genus to which humans belong. It includes Homo sapiens (modern humans), H. habilis, H. erectus and H. neanderthalensis.

Hunter-gatherer: A way of life in which subsistence is based on the hunting of animals and/or fishing and the collection of wild plants rather than a settled agricultural lifestyle.

Indirect percussion: A technique used in the manufacture of stone tools where pressure is applied to a striking platform with the aid of an interposing punch (bone or antler) between the hammer and the raw material (thus the hammer does not directly strike the raw material). This allows greater control than direct percussion flaking and results in less wasteful shatter of the material.

Inference: A determination arrived by reasoning that is not derived from the archaeological data itself, but goes beyond the physical evidence. For example, one could infer that fitted (sewn) clothing existed during the Upper Paleolithic period based on tool assemblages that include burins, awls, bone needles and pins in the absence of tangible fibers.

Inhumation: The interment (burial) of a complete corpse.

Inorganic material: Materials that are not derived from living organisms such as animals or plants.

In situ: A term applied to archaeological remains that are found in their original undisturbed location or position during excavation or survey.

Institute of Field Archaeologists (IFA): A UK-based organization for archaeologists working in all sectors of the discipline. It promotes professional standards and ethics within the profession.

Iron Age: The third major stage of the “Three Age System” after the Bronze Age, in which iron became the main material used to make tools and weapons. The dates of the Iron Age vary greatly from one region to another. 

Kiva: A partly subterranean chamber (circular pit) used for important rituals and other group activities, typical of the Hopi and other Pueblo peoples.

Knapper: Someone who works stone to create a tool by applying force to its surface, either by percussion or by pressure.


Lithic: Stone, or an artifact made of stone.                                                               

Looting: Any unscientific and illegal act of taking an artifact from an archaeological site for profit. This destroys crucial and irreplaceable contextual information that archaeologists require in order to learn about a site’s past activities (see context for further information).

Mandible: The lower jaw.

Matrix: The physical material (sediment such as gravel, sand or clay, or even water or ice) that surrounds or supports an artifact during excavation.

Mesolithic: The middle Stone Age period in the Old World, beginning around 10,000 years ago and situated between the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods. Associated with climate change and adapting toolkits (the dominance of microliths).

Microlith: A small stone artifact varying in size from about 1-5 cm, used in composite tools (e.g., the tip of a bone, antler or wooden implement or as an arrow-point). They were produced during the Later Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic periods.

Microwear or use-wear analysis: The study of the working edge of an artifact (usually a flint tool) to discover its function. Patterns of wear, damage or residues may be observed via a high-powered microscope.

Midden: An area of accumulated debris and domestic waste resulting from human activity. Over time, the refuse can build up to produce stratified deposits containing well-preserved biological and environmental remains (such as shells, animal bones, broken pots, tools and charcoal), which are very useful for relative dating.

Mitigation: Actions taken to preserve and minimize destruction of archaeological remains.

Neolithic: A cultural period in the Old World, which followed the Mesolithic. It is also commonly referred to as the ‘New Stone Age’. It marks the arrival of the first farmers (a transition from hunter-gathering to an agricultural/sedentary lifestyle), which existed before the use of metals for tools (people still used stone tools).

Nodule: See Core

Obsidian: A natural volcanic glass that is formed when lava cools very quickly. This jet-black to gray mineral was often used as a raw material for the manufacture of stone tools and was easily chipped to produce very sharp edges. For this reason, it became widely traded.

Oral history: Traditions and stories passed down via word of mouth from one generation to another.

Organic material: Materials derived from living organisms such as bone, wood, hide, ivory and fiber.

Osteology: The study of bones (human or otherwise).

Paleolithic or Palaeolithic: Meaning the ‘Old Stone Age’ (between approximately 2.5 million and 20,000 years ago). It pertains to the prehistoric period from the time crude tool manufacturing activities began until the appearance of fully modern human hunting and gathering societies. This era demonstrates an evolution in human brain-size, together with a refinement in stone tool technology.  

Paleoanthropology: The study of the earliest humans and human evolution via the fossil record and archaeology.

Palynology or pollen analysis: The study of pollen grains. Such observations are used primarily for environmental reconstruction, as well as to provide a date within a chronology (a relative date).

Pathogen: Anything that causes disease, particularly living microorganisms such as a bacterium or fungus.

Patina: The surface layer of an artifact changes over time due to varying environmental conditions. For example, handling can cause flint to have a glossy sheen. Metals, especially bronze, may have a thin green patina that is often a product of corrosion.

Pictograph: A design painted on a rock surface that is a representation of an object or an event.

Pleistocene: An interval of geological time that is part of the Quaternary period. The epoch contains evidence of humans and their development, and ended around 10,000 years ago.

Pottery: See ceramics.

Potsherds: See sherds

Prehistory: A large section of the human experience before written historical records, where evidence is based on archaeology. In North America, prehistory refers to the period before the arrival of Europeans and their writing practices, which primarily includes Native American cultures.

Preservation: To protect archaeological remains from destruction, deterioration or loss of context. The main goal of preservation is to prolong the survival of cultural resources.

Provenance: Information relating to the background and chain of ownership of artifacts (usually works of art, historical objects or archival records).

Provenience: This provides important information about the place of origin of an artifact, i.e., precise geographic or spatial location (both vertical and horizontal measurements in relation to a set of spatial coordinates) of an artifact at an archaeological site once it has been removed from its context. This is very important, as it can help archaeologists interpret the artifact’s meaning or use, and can contribute to our understanding of past human activities.

Proximal end: A term that relates to the manufacture of stone tools. It refers to the end of a flake that is closest to the striking platform and/or bulb of percussion.

Pueblo: (Spanish: “village”). A multistoried adobe or stone brick communal dwelling common among Southwest native peoples.

Quaternary: Major geochronological subdivision that comprises the Pleistocene and Holocene. 


Radiocarbon dating: See Carbon-14 dating.

Reduction process/sequence or “ChaÎne Opératoire”: The cumulative and irreversible removal of fragments from a core during the creation of a stone tool.

Refitting: Involves at least partial reconstruction of pieces of stone so that they almost resemble their original form.

Relative dating: A technique that provides a chronological date but not in precise years. Examples include typology, stratigraphy and seriation.

Replica: A copy or reproduction of the original.

Section: In archaeology, the term refers to a vertical cut (or exposure) through a body of sediment or a feature to reveal the stratigraphy or details of a particular feature, which is then recorded in photographs and section drawings.

Seriation: A relative dating technique that orders artifacts or assemblages from different sites into an approximate chronological order, based upon similarity of attributes, their frequency of occurrence (frequency seriation), and their relative stratigraphic location (contextual seriation). Where absolute dating methods cannot be applied (such as radiocarbon dating) archaeologists use the principle that artifacts most similar are closest to one another in time and space. Sequences established via seriation can be tied to absolute chronologies if any of the artifacts can be dated.

Sherds: Broken pieces or fragments of ceramic or pottery artifacts, such as storage and cooking vessels. Sherds are commonly found on archaeological sites. Also called potsherds.

Site: An area that has material evidence of past human activity.

Soil horizon: A distinctive layer in the land area that differs from both the overlying or underlying layers (e.g., by color and texture), that has been caused by the differing environmental conditions occurring over a period of time.

Spoil tip or spoil heap: The area where excavated and sieved sediment is temporarily kept during an archaeological excavation.

Steward: Someone who takes action to preserve and/or protect archaeological remains. 

Stratigraphy: A term that refers to the study and interpretation of the layers (strata) of archaeological deposits (e.g., sediments, soils). Natural sediments and cultural remains become buried over time, which results in the oldest layers and artifacts ending up at the bottom and the youngest (most recent) arriving at the top. Stratigraphy can thus be used to establish a relative date for artifacts found within the different layers by association with dateable artifacts found within the strata.

Striking platform: A term that relates to the manufacture of stone tools. It refers to the area on a stone that has been struck to remove a flake or blade.

Taphonomy: The study of the processes that affect organic remains such as bones, which have been deposited in the ground after death.

Thermoluminescence (TL): A chronometric method of dating pottery by measuring stored energy (given off as light) when it is reheated. Electrons become trapped into minerals at the time they are heated. The number of charge carriers trapped in a sample of pottery is related to the length of time that has gone by since the pottery was fired (the longer the exposure to radiation from the decay of radioactive elements in the ground and in the objects themselves, the more electrons are knocked into an excited state to become trapped in the sample’s small imperfections in the crystal lattice). Later heating releases the trapped electrons, producing light. Measurement of the intensity of the light can thus be used to determine how much time has elapsed since the last time the object was heated. Generally speaking, the more light produced, the older the piece of pottery. When the piece of pottery is reheated to release all stored energy, the build-up starts all over again from zero.

Tree-ring dating: See dendrochronology.

Typology:  The systematic organization or classification of artifacts into a dated series (from oldest to newest) based upon common attributes. Typically used for lithics or pottery.

Unit: A defined area of excavation.

Upper Paleolithic or Upper Palaeolithic: A cultural period in the Old World beginning about 40,000 years ago, with fully modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens). It is the final part of the Paleolithic period and is characterized by the manufacture of blade stone tools, a variety of distinctive regional stone tool industries (such as the Aurignacian, Solutrean, and Magdalenian), artifacts made of bone, antler and wood, and the development of art.

Use-wear Analysis: See microwear analysis.

Vandalism: The ‘willful or malicious destruction or defacement of public or private property’. The term vandalism is normally applied to a person who intentionally causes serious physical damage to objects. Although penalties may be imposed (based upon the value of the property damage) to offenders who are caught, this does not really compensate for our unique and non-renewable archaeological heritage.

Ventral surface: A term that relates to the manufacture of stone tools. It refers to the side of a flake or blade that has been struck and which contains the bulb of percussion.

Zooarchaeology or archaeozoology: The study of faunal remains (especially bones) that are found in or near archaeological sites in order to reconstruct past environments, dietary and butchering patterns, and information relating to animal domestication.