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Archaeological Terms


Adze: An adze is an elongated ground stone tool with one sharpened edge typically used like an axe for splitting materials such as wood.


Archaeobotanical remains:  Similar to faunal remains, archaeobotanical remains include any remnants of plant matter found at a site. Because plant matter tends to decompose very quickly, archaeobotanical remains are relatively rare and rely on particular taphonomic conditions. Plant remains used by past people are thought to be represented best in features.  From these features, soil samples must be taken, processed and analysed. When they are preserved and later recovered and identified, these ancient plant parts can provide valuable insight into the lifestyle and diet of the site's inhabitants as well as the local environment. Some examples of floral remains include seeds, nutshell and charcoal.





Artifact: An artifact is any object modified or produced by humans. This includes all tools, by-products of tool manufacturing, and any floral or faunal remains which have been modified by human activity.


Assemblage: An assemblage is a group of artifacts which are related either by temporal or spatial proximity to each other, or both. Archaeologists will often subdivide larger assemblages into smaller groups based on material, artifact type, or cultural association. For example, one could refer to all of the lithic artifacts from a given site as a “lithic assemblage.”


Association: Association may refer either to artifacts found in close physical proximity to each other during excavation or to artifacts which are interpreted as being related to each other despite a lack of physical proximity. Spatial association typically implies that artifacts were used together or related by purpose or meaning.


Awl: An awl is a pointed tool similar to a modern needle used for punching holes in cloth or hide. Awls are typically made out of bone, antler, or wood. Some awls have a hole bored in them, through which string or sinew could be threaded for use in sewing.


Biface: a lithic tool which has been worked on both sides


Blade: Similar to a normal flake, blades are distinguished by the fact that they are much longer than they are wide. The long sharp edge produced by this shape makes blades ideal for use as cutting tools, and also makes them easy to haft for use as a composite tool. Blades less than 5cm in length are known as microblades. Both blade and microblade cores are distinctive due to the elongated flake scars around their outer edges. The preparation of cores for the manufacture of blades and especially microblades requires a great deal of technical skill and dexterity. The presence of microblades at archaeological sites is relatively rare and is typically considered a significant cultural marker.


Borden System: The Borden System, devised by Charles E. Borden in 1954, is a system of letters and numbers used to designate the location of archaeological sites in Canada. Based on where a site is located within a grid spanning across Canada, it is assigned a four letter code followed by a number. This code allows other archaeologists to understand the general geographic context of the site.


B.P.: B.P. or “Before Present” indicates the approximate age of an artifact in relation to the current era. Because this system was devised in 1950, “present” refers to 1950.


Calcined bone: When bone is burnt to such an extent that all that remains are its white, blue, or grey mineral components, it is said to be calcined. Calcined bone will often have an uneven colour and a chalky texture.



Catalogue: A catalogue is a list of artifacts used to keep track of all the necessary information pertaining to each artifact. A typical catalogue entry includes a catalogue number, the name of the artifact, the material the artifact is made of, a general description of the artifact, the estimated age of the artifact, the precise location the artifact was found, and the date it was catalogued. A catalogue is an extremely valuable tool as it allows the archaeologist to compile all of their data into a single document, thus reducing the amount of handling the artifacts are subjected to and acting as insurance against the loss of information.


Ceramic: The term ceramic refers to clay artifacts which have been fired at a high temperature. These artifacts are most commonly items such as dishes and vessels used in cooking and food preparation. As a result, they commonly bear traces of food on their interior surfaces and burning on their outer surfaces. These remnants allow archaeologists insight into the diet and cooking techniques of the people who used these artifacts. In addition to vessels, ceramic artifacts also include pipes and decorative items such as beads. Ceramic artifacts are often decorated using techniques such as incising (carving designs into the wet clay), stamping, painting, or glazing.


Chronology: This term refers to the order in which events took place over time.


Composite tool: A composite tool is one which is made out of more than one type of material and may have multiple parts which can be disengaged from each other. An example of this is a knife consisting of a bone handle and a stone blade.


Conservation: Conservation consists of any practices aimed at preserving the physical (and sometimes cultural) integrity of an artifact. Conservation can include preventive practices such as storing corroded metal separately from non-corroded metal as well as remedial practices such as re-attaching fragments of a broken artifact. Typically, when extensive remedial conservation is required, a professional conservator will be contracted for the job.


Context: Context refers to the physical, temporal, and cultural conditions surrounding a given artifact, feature, site, culture, or event. An object’s original spatial surroundings are referred to as its primary context. If an object has been displaced from its original context during burial, it is said to have a secondary context.


Core: a core is an angular piece of rock from which flakes have been removed for the manufacture of stone tools. Cores can be identified by the presence of concave flake scars all over the surface of the rock. While cores serve primarily as the raw material from which flakes are removed and made into tools, cores themselves can also be made into tools.


Cortex: The cortex is the outer surface of a rock or a bone.


Cultural Resource Management Archaeology: In Ontario, the law requires an archaeological assessment to be conducted prior to any kind of activity which could potentially disturb archaeological material. For this purpose, professional archaeologists are contracted to perform these assessments. There are four stages of cultural resource management archaeology. Stage 1 consists of background research about the designated plot of land and the surrounding region, taking into account past occupants, as well as any geographic features which might make it a probable location for an archaeological site. Stage 2 consists of a surface survey of the area which then leads to possible test-pitting if any artifacts are observed. Stage 3 takes place when an archaeological deposit has been identified. The aim of this stage is to ascertain the extent of the site through excavation and to identify the kind of information it could reveal about the people who created it. Stage 4 takes place if the site is deemed to be sufficiently significant, and involves the complete excavation of the site. During all stages of CRM archaeology, careful notes are kept about the process, artifacts are catalogued, processed, and stored, and eventually a report is produced detailing the findings of the assessment. According to Ontario law, the principal archaeologist is responsible for ensuring that all artifacts are kept in perpetuity. However, there are currently no regulations concerning the state in which these collections are kept.


Distal: The term “distal” is used to indicate the end of a bone or tool which is furthest away from the body of the user or owner. For example, the distal end of a tibia is the end which is closest to the foot and furthest from the knee. In discussing an arrow or a spear, the distal end would be the pointed tip, as it is held furthest away from the user’s body.



Disturbance: Disturbance occurs when the original context of deposition of artifacts or sediments is altered. This can be caused by natural forces such as erosion or animal activity, but is unfortunately also sometimes caused by human looting of archaeological sites.


Drill: A drill is a narrow elongated tool used for making holes in materials such as wood, bone, shell, rock, and sometimes ceramic. When made out of stone, drills often have a distinctive t-shaped design.


Effigy pipe: Effigy pipes are pipes made of stone or ceramic featuring decoration in the shape of human or animal faces. Because effigy pipes are considered to be culturally sensitive material, Sustainable Archaeology does not post images of them online.


Epiphysis: An epiphysis is the extreme end of a bone or tool. In the bones of younger animals, the epiphyses are often not yet fused to the main shaft of the bone. Because of this, the presence of disarticulated epiphyses at a site can often help archaeologists understand the age of the animals being consumed, and thus the season of kill and general hunting techniques of the site’s inhabitants.


Excavation: Excavation is the methodical technique through which buried archaeological material is uncovered. Sites are usually excavated by dividing the site into a regulated grid of units and then removing sediment from each unit in standardized amounts. As soil is dug out of a unit it is sifted through a screen in order to catch any small artifacts which may have been missed by the person digging. Should any artifacts be discovered in situ by the person digging, their precise original location will typically be recorded.


Faunal remains: Faunal remains include any components of an animal’s body which are found at a site. These can include bone, teeth, hide, fur, and shell. The analysis of faunal remains can help archaeologists to understand the diet of a site’s occupants as well as the season the site was occupied. While the primary use of most animals was as food, faunal remains also served as valuable materials for the production of tools, clothing and ornamentation.


Feature: A feature is a human-made mark on the natural landscape. Some examples of common feature types are structural remains, hearths, middens (garbage pits) and caches of tools or food.


Flake: A flake is a thin piece of rock which is broken off of the core rock in order to make a stone tool. Most stone tools are made by retouching (re-shaping and sharpening) flakes.



Gorget: A gorget is a large flat piece of perforated stone, metal, or shell to be worn as an ornament around the neck.



Ground stone: The term “ground stone” refers to any stone artifact which has been shaped by grinding. These often include adzes, manos and metates, gorgets, and fishing weights.


Gun flint: A gun flint is a small blocky chunk of chert or flint used for igniting gunpowder in a firearm.


Hafted: A hafted tool is one which has been attached to a bone or wood handle. The earliest tools were not hafted, so the presence of hafting helps to temporally situate a site.


Hammerstone: When manufacturing stone tools a rounded hard stone known as a hammerstone is used to strike flakes of rock from a larger piece of raw material. Hammerstones are not restricted to a certain type of rock, but are rather chosen based on the preference of the person making the stone tools. A particularly suitable hammerstone might be kept by an individual and carried from site to site, while less favoured specimens would be discarded. Hammerstones can be identified by their typically rounded shape and the presence of abrasion concentrated on one end of the stone.


Harpoon: A spear-like weapon with a detachable barbed point used primarily for hunting fish and marine mammals. The point of the harpoon is usually attached to a line used by the hunter to retrieve the point following the thrust.


Hearth: A fireplace, often round and sometimes lined by rock or clay. During excavation, hearths typically appear as a stain in the soil confined to a discernible shape.


Historic period: The term "Historic Period" refers to the time period following the arrival of Europeans in North America. This period is also commonly called the Post-Contact era.


Horizon: The term "horizon" may refer either to a discrete cultural period marked by some easily recognizable trait (such as the presence of a specific type of tool or technique) OR to a natural developmental zone in a soil profile.


Inclusions: This term is most commonly used to refer to the particles included in clay and ceramic artifacts. During the manufacturing process, inclusions such as sand, broken shell, and even broken pieces of old ceramics were often added to clay to improve both the strength and the aesthetic appeal of the finished product. Often, the nature of these inclusions can afford insight in the site or region of manufacture. More broadly, the term may also refer to any intentional cultural association, such as the inclusion of artifacts in a cache of tools.



In situ: Artifacts are said to be "in situ" when there are discovered in the place they were last deposited. This means that they have not been disturbed since the point of their deposition. Artifacts which have been moved as a result of either human (ploughing, looting, etc) or natural (animal activity, erosion, etc) forces are no longer in situ.


Kill site: The site at which an animal is killed by hunters is called the "kill site." The kill site is not always the same place as the site at which the animal is consumed or even fully butchered, and analysis of kill sites can help archaeologists understand a culture's practices surrounding food and hunting.


Labret: A wooden, stone, or bone plug inserted into a perforation in the lower lip and worn as ornamentation, often signifying status.


Leaching: A natural process by which chemicals an minerals are transported downwards through a soil profile.


Lithic: Lithics (or stones) have been used by many cultures to create tools such as knives, axes, and arrowheads and have also lent themselves to being carved into ornate decorative items. The most common lithic material in most of Ontario's archaeological collections is chert, also sometimes called flint. Chert is an extremely fine-grained sedimentary rock which, thanks to the consistency of it's grain size, fractures in a predictable manner when struck. This allows chert tools to be extremely intricate and to include very sharp edges used for cutting. Because of these attributes and due to the ready availability of chert, it has been used by cultures around the world in the manufacture of versatile and effective cutting tools.


Mano: Paired with a metate, a mano is a handheld stone used to grind plant foods. The mano and metate closely perform the same function as today's mortar and pestle. Sometimes the mano or metate will bear traces of plant matter, giving archaeologists a glimpse of what was eaten by the people who used the tool.


Midden: A midden is a deposit of refuse -- essentially a garbage pit or pile. Middens are an excellent source of information as they often include a wide range of materials, include food remains, broken tools and cooking vessels, and any other discarded items.


Ochre: Used as a pigmentation or paint, ochre is produced by crushing or grinding colourful minerals. Ochre can be found in archaeological collections either in its unprocessed form (as a lump of mineral) or as colourful traces on artifacts.


Paleo-Indian: The term "Paleo-Indian" is used to signify the earliest well-documented groups in North America, and specifically those who produced un-stemmed lance-shaped points. These groups were mostly nomadic hunter-gatherers, following the movements of game animals across the landscape from season to season. The term has a long and flexible history and thus other definitions of the term may be encountered.



Paleosol: Literally, this term means "old-soil" and indicates past soil horizons which have been buried by ongoing soil deposition. These paleosols can be analyzed to access information about past environmental conditions.


Point: A point is a roughly tear-drop shaped stone tool which can be used either as a weapon (especially when "hafted" or attached to a shaft) or as a knife or cutting tool when handheld. Point come in many shapes and sizes, and are manufactured using a wide variety of distinctive techniques. As a result, they are some of the most useful artifacts for distinguishing time period and culture. The term "projectile point" refers specifically to points intended to be attached (hafted) to a shaft and used either as a throwing spear or an arrow.


Post-Contact: The term "Post-Contact" refers to the period of time following the initial contact between Indigenous peoples and Europeans. This period of time is also known as the "Historic Period."


Post-mold: Following the decay/decomposition of wooden structural posts (such as those used in the construction of dwellings), the resulting mark on the landscape is called a "post-mold." During excavation, post-molds may appear as a round stain on the soil, and may also cause a cavity or an area of more loosely packed soil in the stratigraphy.


Pre-Contact: The Pre-Contact era refers to the period of time before contact was made between North American Indigenous peoples and Europeans.


Provenience: Provenience is information about where an artifact was found. This typically includes the name and location of the site, the unit or area within the site, the depth within the unit, and sometimes the distance from the unit’s south and east walls. If the site has a number of different stratigraphic layers or occupations, information about which soil layer the artifact was found in will also be included. Archaeologists often accompany their documentation of provenience information with the names of the archaeologists involved, the name of any associated institutions (such as a university) and the date the excavation took place. While provenience information is necessary in order to fully understand an artifact, there are often constraints placed on an archaeologist’s ability to include every detail. Because of this, the kind of provenience information that is recorded often depends on the archaeologist’s research question and the purpose of the excavation.


Proximal: The term “proximal” is used to indicate the end of a bone or tool which is nearest to the body of the user or owner. For example, the proximal end of a tibia is the end which is closest to the knee and furthest from the foot. In discussing a projectile point, the proximal end would be the base or stem of the point, as it is held towards the body of the person when in use.


Raw material: This term refers to any unprocessed material (such as stone, bone, shell or wood) which can be worked into a implement or cultural artifact.



Refitted: Sometimes, upon analyzing elements of a broken artifact, it is possible for an archaeologist to reassemble the artifact by fitting two or more pieces together. This process is called "refitting" and can help the archaeologist understand how the artifact was broken. When it is possible to refit the debitage produced during the manufacture of stone tools, insight can be gained into the techniques used to produce these tools.


Retouch: Retouching is the process by which small flakes are removed along the edge of a stone tool in order to sharpen and shape the edge of the tool. The presence of retouch signifies a greater amount of time and effort dedicated to the production of the tool, which usually speaks to the broader lifestyle and culture of the individual who produced it, as well as the conditions under which it was produced. For example, in a moment of urgent need, an individual might forego the retouching process in favour of simply making a more expedient tool without retouch.


Sampling: When performing excavations or analysis of archaeological collections, it is often unfeasible and/or destructive to analyze the entire area or collection. As a result, a sample is chosen to represent the whole. There a number of sampling techniques both random and intentional. The sampling technique used for a given investigation is chosen based on the nature of the research question and the logistical or physical constraints imposed by the sample population.


Scraper: Scrapers appear in many forms and materials, but are commonly defined as a multi-purpose tool used for scraping, scouring, cutting, and/or planing. Scrapers are most commonly stone tools, but may also be made from bone, antler, metal, or shell.


Seasonality: "Seasonality" refers to the season during which an event took place. Seasonality is most often discussed in reference to events such as the death of an animal or the occupation of a given site. Typically, seasonality is determined through the analysis of faunal and/or floral remains.


Sherd: A sherd is a broken piece of ceramic or pottery. Sherds are usually sorted into three different categories based on which part of a vessel they appear to have come from. Rim sherds are sherds which formerly made up the rim of a vessel. These are often decorated and can be identified by the presence of a smooth, unbroken edge. Body sherds are sherds which come from the main middle section of a vessel. These are sometimes decorated and, as they have no unbroken edges, are the most common type of sherd. Neck sherds are sherds which come from the neck of a vessel – the point at which the vessel narrows near the top before opening into the mouth. Like body sherds, neck sherds are sometimes decorated and have no unbroken edges. They are distinguished by their curved concave shape.


Site: A site is defined as any location bearing evidence of past human activity. The types of site are extremely varied and include habitation site, kill-sites, caches, manufacturing sites, and much more. Human activity may be detected through the presence of artifacts produced by humans, but may also be detected through human-made marks on the landscape (such as hearths and post-molds).


Soil sample: A sample of soil collected from an archaeological site for physical or chemical analysis. One common method of physical analysis is the flotation of soil samples, wherein the sample is submerged in water and agitate, in order to allow any floral remains to rise to the surface.


Stratigraphy: Typically, separate periods or events of soil deposition can be detected by changes in the colour and/or texture of the soil. These layers are termed the "stratigraphy" of a site or region.


Superposition: According to the "Law of Superposition," in an undisturbed depositional sequence the oldest materials will be at the bottom of the sequence, and the newest materials will be at the top. Thus, if a site has three stratigraphic layers, the bottom layer will be the oldest, the middle layer will represent an intermediary time period, and the top layer will represent the current time period.


Survey: Surveying is the process by which archaeological sites and features are located. Most commonly, surveys are conducted on foot, with a team of archaeologists systematically walking across the survey area looking for changes in the landscape or surface artifacts signifying past human activity. If sufficient evidence of human activity is found at the surface level, the surveyors may then conduct a more in-depth survey by digging a series of regularly spaced "test pits." Surveys are also frequently conducted from the air or by using aerial images in order to detect anomalies in the landscape.


Taphonomy: The natural processes through which archaeological sites and artifacts are altered following their deposition or burial. These include processes such as animal activity (chewing, burrowing, etc), erosion, and freezing and thawing.



Test pit: Test pits are typically small pits dug at regular intervals in order to determine the depth and extent of an archaeological deposit during the surveying process. Depending on the results of the test pitting stage, a more extensive excavation may or may not be conducted.


Thin section: When analyzing artifacts in the laboratory it is often useful to examine materials such as ceramic, faunal remains, floral remains, or soil samples with the use of a polarizing microscope. In order to do so, a thin slice of the material must be cut and mounted onto a microscope slide using an epoxy solution. The sample is then polished down to a predetermined thickness and examined under the microscope. This process is highly complex and requires access to sophisticate laboratory equipment. Once the thin sections are produced however, they can provide a great deal of insight into matters such as the source of lithic materials and the seasonality of faunal remains.


Uniface: A unifacial stone tool is one which has only had flakes removed from one surface.


Unit: During archaeological excavation, sites are typically excavated in regular, pre-defined units, often measuring 1 metre by 1 metre. By doing so, the archaeologist is then able to record, the precise location within a site where an artifact was found, as well as compare the distribution of artifacts by area within the site. The size of the unit used in an excavation is determined based on the logistics of the site and the nature of the research question. Sometimes, in order to gain greater precision, larger units will be divided into smaller quadrants which are then excavated individually. This is especially common when excavating a defined archaeological feature such as a midden or a dwelling.


Use wear: This term refers to the physical evidence of use apparent on a tool. This evidence may appear as striations, polishing, or chipping depending on the type of use, and helps archaeologists to understand how a tool was used and what it was used for.


Weathering: The term "weathering" refers to the natural process of chemical or physical alteration of an object or deposit over time.


Worked: When raw material has been altered by human intention, it is said to be worked. Examples of this include the flaking or grinding of stone, or the carving of bone or antler.


Zooarchaeology: Zooarchaeology is the study of faunal remains found in association with human archaeological deposits.