Excavation glossary

  • Artefact – An object manufactured, modified, or used by humans.
  • Assemblage – A group of artefacts found within the same archaeological context.
  • Association – Objects found near one another in the same context are said to be “in association” or “associated with”

 

  • Backfill – refilling a pit or trench.
  • Baulk – A partition of earth left standing between adjoining excavation area. Baulks are often left to aid with stratigraphic analysis.
  • Biface tools – Stone tools that have been worked on both sides or faces, meaning that flakes have been intentionally (not naturally) chipped off from both sides of the stone.

 

  • Ceramics – Objects made of fired or baked clay.
  • Chert – A fine-grained sedimentary rock, similar to flint.
  • Conchoidal – Relating to stone tools, the term describes a specific type of fracture created when flint, chert, or glass-like substances are struck with a hard instrument and a flake is removed. The fracture pattern produces a flake that appears curved.
  • Context – The position and associations of an artefact, feature, or archaeological find in space and time. Noting where the artefact was found and what was around it assists archaeologists in determining chronology and interpreting function and significance. Loss of context strips an artefact of meaning and makes it more difficult, or impossible, to determine function.
  • Coprolite – Fossilised excrement or faeces.
  • Core – A chunk of rock from which flakes are removed. The core itself can be shaped into a tool or used as a source of flakes to be formed into tools.
  • Cortex – The rough outer surface of a rock, usually removed to reveal the smooth interior during flint knapping.

 

  • Debitage – Small pieces of stone debris that break off during the manufacturing of stone tools. Usually considered waste and are a by-product of production.
  • Dendrochronology – A type of absolute dating based on the fact that trees add a ring of growth annually, and counting the rings gives the age of the tree.

The rings vary in size depending on the conditions affecting trees in an area, so trees from the same region will have similar patterns of growth and can be matched with one other.

When a tree ring pattern is recognised in timber, the age of that timber can be calculated and thus the approximate age of the feature or structure to which it belongs can be determined.

 

  • Ecofacts – Archaeological finds that were not manufactured by humans. These include bones and organic remains.
  • Electrical Resistivity — A geophysical survey technique that involves measuring changes in the flow of electrical or radio waves under the earth’s surface as a way to identify buried anomalies.

 

  • Flake – A piece of stone removed from a core for use as a tool or as debitage.
  • Flint – Hard, fine-grained sedimentary rock used to manufacture tools.
  • Flotation – The soaking of an excavated sample in water to separate and recover small ecofacts and artefacts.

 

  • Ghost wall – See Robber Cut.
  • GIS – Geographic information systems are software programs that allow archaeologists to organise, summarise and visually display geographic and locational information.
  • Grave goods – Objects placed within human burials to equip a person for the afterlife or to identify the deceased.
  • Grid – A network of squares. A site or large area of excavation is generally marked off into square units before digging begins.
  • Ground-penetrating radar – An instrument used to find sub-surface anomalies by recording differential reflection of radar pulses.

 

  • Harris Matrix – Invented in 1973 by Dr. Edward C. Harris as a way to simplify the representation of the stratigraphy at an archaeological site. In addition to traditional cross-section drawings, Harris proposed that archaeologists create a flow chart (Harris Matrix) of a site to record the order in which layers and features occurred.

 

  • In situ – Anything in its natural or original position or place is said to be in situ.

 

  • Knapping – A technique for making stone tools and weapons by striking flakes from a core with a hard (stone) or soft (antler) percussion instrument. Individual flakes or cores can be further modified to create tools. Also called flintknapping.

 

  • Lintel – A horizontal block or beam spanning the top of a doorway or other opening. In other words, the top of a doorway.
  • Lipid analysis – Residue or lipid analysis is used to detect fats, waxes and resins absorbed by, and preserved within, pottery fabrics during use, offering insights into what food was cooked or how the vessels were otherwise used.
  • Lithic – Of, or pertaining, to stone.

 

  • Magnetometry – A geophysical survey technique that involves measuring magnetic irregularities under the earth’s surface as a way to identify buried anomalies that may indicate activity.
  • Material culture – Physical objects and structures from the past.
  • Matrix – The physical material (earth or midden) in which archaeological objects are located.
  • Microlith – Small, flaked stone tools.
  • Midden – A deposit of occupation debris, rubbish, or other by-products of human activity.

 

  • Organic – Material derived from or relating to living organisms. Organic remains decay and, except in certain circumstances, are not preserved as well as inorganic remains in the archaeological record.
  • Orthostat – An upright stone or slab forming part of a structure or set in the ground.
  • Osteology – The study of the structure and function of bones.

 

  • Paleobotany – Study of ancient plants from fossil remains and other evidence.
  • Palynology – The recovery and study of ancient pollen grains for the purposes of analysing climate, vegetation, and diet.
  • Pressure flaking – Technique of removing flakes from a core by applying pressure steadily until the flake breaks off, in contrast to percussion flaking, in which the flake is struck off.
  • Primary context – The context of an artefact, feature, or site that has not been disturbed since its original deposition.
  • Provenance – The origin, or history of ownership of an archaeological or historical object.

 

  • Radiocarbon dating – An absolute dating technique used to determine the age of organic materials less than 50,000 years old.

Age is determined by examining the loss of the unstable carbon-14 isotope, which is absorbed by all living organisms during their lifespan. The rate of decay of this unstable isotope after the organism has died is assumed to be constant, and is measured in half-lives of 5,730 + 40 years, meaning that the amount of carbon-14 is reduced to half the amount after about 5,730 years.

Dates generated by radiocarbon dating have to be calibrated using dates derived from other dating methods, such as dendrochronology and ice cores.

  • Robber cut (or trench) – a cut or slot created as a result of removing partly or wholly buried building materials and architectural features for reuse elsewhere. A former wall‐line represented archaeologically only by a robber cut is also known as a ghost wall.

 

  • Secondary context – Context of an artefact that has been wholly or partially altered by transformation/site formation processes after its original deposit, as in disturbance by human activity after the artefacts’ original deposition.
  • Section – the exposed view of an excavation tench wall.
  • Section drawing – representations of the walls of an excavation trench or of a baulk made as if one were standing directly in front of them.
  • Sherd – The term used for a piece of broken pottery from an archaeological context.
  • Sondage — a small, but deep, exploratory trench.
  • Spoil — the soil and rubble that results from an excavation. Discarded on spoil heaps.
  • Stratigraphy – The study of the layers (strata) of sediments, soils, and material culture at an archaeological site.

 

  • Temper – Coarse material, such as crushed rock, shells or sand, added to clay to get a desired texture or consistency for making a pot or other artefact.
  • Terminus ante quem – Date before which something cannot have been constructed or deposited.
  • Terminus post quem – Date after which something cannot have been constructed or deposited.
  • Test pit – An excavation unit used in the initial investigation of a site or area, before large-scale excavation begins, that allows the archaeologist to “preview” what lies under the ground.
  • Thermoluminescence (TL) – A dating technique in which the amount of light energy released when heating a sample of pottery or sediment is measured as an indicator of the time since it was last heated to a critical temperature.
  • Typology – The study and chronological arrangement of artefacts, such as ceramics or lithics, into different types based on associating similar characteristics. Typing makes a high volume of samples easier to study and compare.

 

  • Uniface tools – Tools or points that are worked or knapped on only one side or face.
  • Use-wear analysis – Microscopic analysis of artefacts or bones to find wear patterns or damage marks that indicate how the artefact was used. For example, marks running perpendicularly to the edge of a stone knife could indicate that the tool was used for scraping rather than cutting. Also called wear analysis.

 

  • XRFX-ray fluorescence. An XRF spectrometer is an instrument used for on-site chemical analysis of rocks, minerals, sediments and fluids.