Photo by Ruben G. Mendoza, PhD.
Mission Soledad, California, excavation area

Please use this page for definitions of those archaeology methods, tools, concepts, and procedures used in both lab and field contexts. [PAGE UNDER CONSTRUCTION]


Absolute dating: or chronometric dating; the determination of age with reference to a specific time scale, such as fixed calendrical system. (ae)

Archaeobotany: or paleoethnobotany; the recovery and identification of plant remains from archaeological contexts, using in reconstructing past environments and economies. (ae)

Anthropology: the study of human beings, divided into linguistics, physical anthropology, cultural anthropology, and forensic anthropology.  (AIA)

Archaeology: the study and excavation of all things ancient (AIA)

Archaeological site: a location with presence of human activity. These sites normally include artifacts or non-environmental disruption patterns.

Archaeozoology: or zooarchaeology, involves identification and analysis of faunal species from archaeological sites, as an aid to the reconstruction of human diets and to understand the contemporary environment at the time of decomposition. (ae)

Artifact: any portable object used, modified, or made by humans; e.g. stone tools, pottery, and metal weapons. (ae)

Assemblage: a group of artifacts recurring together at a particular time and place, and representing the sum of human activities. (ae)

Association: the co-occurrence of an artifacts with other archaeological remains, usually in the same matrix. (ae)
Attribute: a minimal characteristic of an artifact such that it cannot be further subdivided; attributes commonly studied include aspects of form, style, decoration, color, and raw material. (ae)



Ceramics: artifacts, often pottery, made of fired or baked clay. (AIA)

Classification: the ordering of phenomena into groups or the classificatory schemes on the basis of shared attributes. (ae)

Context: an artifact’s context usually consists of its immediate matrix and its association with other artifacts (ae)

Contract Archaeology: archaeology research conducted under the terms of federal or state legislation, often in advance of highway construction, or urban development, where the archaeologist is contracted to undertake the necessary research. (ae)

Core: a lithic artifact used as a blank form which other tools or flakes are made. (ae)

Cultural Resource Management (CRM): the safeguarding of the archaeological heritage through the protection of sites and through salvage archaeology, generally within the framework of legislation designed to safeguard the past. (ae)

Culture: a term used by archaeologists when referring to the non-biological characteristics unique to a particular society. (ae)


Deduction: a process of reasoning by which more specific consequences are inferred by rigorous argument from more general propositions. (ae)

Dendrochronology: the study of tree-ring patterns; annual variations in climatic conditions that produce different growth can be used both as a measure of environmental change, and as a basis for a chronology. (ae)


Earthenware: ceramic not fired to the point where verification occurs and is therefore light and porous unless glazed. (field handbook)

Earth Resistance Survey: or soil resistivity, or resistivity meter; a method of surface detection that measures changes in conductivity by passing electrical current through ground soil. These changes are generally caused by moisture content, and in this way, buried features can be detected by differential retention of groundwater. (ae)

Ecofacts: Non-artifactual organic and environmental remains that have cultural relevance. Examples are faunal and floral remains, as well as soil samples. (ae)

Electrical Resistivity: the machine passes an electrical current between two mobile probes and measures the length of time it takes for the current to pass between the probes against the time it takes for the current to pass between two static probes. Features such as ditches will allow the current to pass quickly whereas walls and track ways will slow the current down. Here two students are conducting a resistivity survey at the southern end of the valley where the royal
hunting lodge was discovered. (KHA)

Electrolysis: standard cleaning process in archaeology conservation. Artifact are placed in a chemical solution, by a passing weak current between them and the surrounding metal grill, the corrosive salts move the cathode(object) to the anode(grill), removing any accumulated deposits and leaving the artifact clean. (ae)

Environmental Archaeology: a field of interdisciplinary research- archaeology and natural science- that is directed at the reconstruction of human use of plants and animals, and how past societies adapted to changing environmental constraints and by territorial limitations. (ae)

Ethnoarchaeology: study of contemporary cultures with a view to understand the behavioral relationships that underlie the production of material culture. (ae)

Ethnography: a subset of cultural anthropology concerned with the comparative study of contemporary cultures, with a view to derive general principles about human society. (ae)

Excavation: the principle method of data acquisition in archaeology, involving the systematic uncovering of archaeological remains through the removal of the deposits of soil and other material covering them and accompanying them. (ae)

Experimental archaeology: study of past behavior processes through experimental reconstruction under carefully controlled scientific conditions. (ae)


Feature: A non-portable artifact, examples hearths, architectural elements, or soil stains. (ae)
Flakes: slivers of stone broken off of a stone core for either tools or weapons. (field handbook)

Flotation: method of screening (sieving) excavated matrix in water so as to separate and recover small ecofacts and artifacts. (ae)

Fluxgate magnetometer: a type of magnetometer used in subsurface detection, producing a continuous reading. (ae)

Field Work: excavation done at an archaeological site. Research done outside of the lab.

Forensic Anthropology: the scientific study of human remains in order to build up a biological profile of the deceased. (ae)

Formation processes: processes affecting the way in which archaeological materials came to be buried, and their subsequent history afterwards. Cultural formation include the deliberate or accidental activities of humans; natural formation processes refer to natural or environmental events that govern the burial and survival of the archaeological record. (ae)

Frequent seriation: relative dating method that relies principally on measuring changes in the proportional abundance, or frequency, observed among findings. (e.g. counts of tool types or ceramic fabrics). (ae)


Geographic Information Systems (GIS): a software based systems designed for the collection, organization, storage, retrieval, analysis, and displaying of spatial/digital geographical data held in different “layers.” A GIS can also include other digital data. (ae)

Grinding stones: tools made from coarse-grain stones. Used from flaking other stones or for grinding organic matter for food or ceremonial purposes. (field handbook)

Ground Reconnaissance: collective name for a wide variety of methods for identifying individual archaeological sites, including consultation of documentary sources, place-name evidence, local folklore, and legend, but primarily actual fieldwork. (as)


Half-life: taken time for a half the quantity of radioactive isotope in a sample to decay. (as)

Hunter-gatherers: collective term for the members of small-scale mobile or semi-sedentary societies, whose subsistence is mainly focused on hunting game and gathering wild plants and fruits; organizational structure is based on bands with strong kinship ties. (as)

Hypothetico-deductive explanation: for of explanation based on the formulation of hypotheses and the establishment form them by deduction. (as)


Iconography: important component of cognitive archaeology. This involves the study of artistic representations that usually have an overt religious or ceremonial significance; e.g. individual duties might be distinguished, each special characteristics, such as corn with corn goddess. (ae)

Induction: method of reasoning in which one proceeds by generalization from a series of specific observations so as to derive general conclusions. (ae)
Isotopic Analysis: important source of information on the reconstruction of prehistoric diets, this technique analyzes the ratios of the principal isotopes preserved in human bone; in effect the method reads the chemical signatures left in the body by different foods. Isotopic analysis is also different by foods. Isotopic analysis is also used in characterization studies. (ae)



Knapping: or flintknapping; a technique for making stone tools and weapons by striking flakes from a core with a hard instrument. Individual flakes or cores can be further modified to create tools. (AIA)


Landscape Archaeology: the study of individual features including settlements seen as single components within the broader perspective of the patterning of human activity over a wide area. (ae)

Light Detection and Ranging (LIDAR): a remote sensing technology that collects 3-dimensional point clouds of the Earth’s surface. Aerial LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) is an aerial mapping technology in which laser returns from the earth’s surface are reflected to an overflying aircraft equipped with on-board GPS and IMU sensors.(KHA)

Literature review: a paper consisting of summaries and personal statements to scholarly sources articles and/or books.


Material Culture: the buildings, tools, and other artifacts that constitute the material remains of former societies. (ae)

Matrix: the physical material within which artifacts are embedded or supported. examples are gravel, clay, or sand. (ae)

Microwear analysis: the study of the patterns of wear or damage on the edge of stone tools, which provides valuable information on the way in which the tool was used. (ae)

Munsell Soil Color Chart: a book filled with swatches to determine soil types. This tool is used in the field to assess the gradation of soil color to name soil type.

Non-probabilistic sampling: non-statistical sampling strategy that concentrates on sampling areas on the basis of intuition, historical documentation, or long field experience in the area. (ae)


Obsidian: volcanic glass, the ease of working and characteristically hard flint-like edges of which allowed it to be used for making of tools. (ae)

Open-Area Excavation: opening up of large horizontal areas for excavation, used especially where single period deposited lie close to the surface. (e.g. remains of American Indian or European Neolithic long houses.) (ae)


Paleontology: study of insects from archaeological contexts. The survival of insect exoskeletons, which are quite resistant to decomposition, is important in the reconstruction of paleoenvironments. (ae)

Palynology: or pollen analysis; study and analysis of fossil pollen as an aid to the reconstruction of past vegetation and climates. (ae)

Porcelain: a clay mixture used fired to produce a hard, light material used for crafting ceramics (field handbook)

Primary source: firsthand account prepared at the event in time of an event; e.g. surveyor’s plans, newspaper reports, government correspondence, or diary entries. (field handbook)

Probabilistic Sampling: sampling method, using probability theory, designed to draw reliable general conclusions about a site or region, based on small sample areas.
The four types of sampling strategies are 1) simple random sampling 2) stratified random sampling 3) systematic sampling 4) stratified systematic sampling.

Processual Archaeology: an approach that stresses the dynamic relationship between social and economic aspects of culture and the environment as the basis for understanding the processes of culture change. Uses the scientific methodology of problem statement, hypothesis formulation, and subsequent testing.

Provenience: place of origin or (earliest) known history of something; also the horizontal and vertical position of an artifact, ecofact, or feature within a matrix. (ae)

Pyrotechnology: intentional use and control of fire by humans. (ae)


Quarry: site in which Indigenous people have extracted stone for making stone artifacts, ocher for painting, clay for pottery, or some other substance important to their practices. (field handbook)


Radioactive Decay: the regular process by which radioactive isotopes break down into their decay products with a half-life that is specific to the isotope in question. (ae)

Reconnaissance Survey: a broad range of techniques involves in the location of archaeological sites. (e.g. the recording of surface artifacts and features, and the sampling of natural and mineral resources.) (ae)

Relative dating: the determination of chronological sequence without resource to a fixed time scale. (e.g. the arrangement of artifacts in a typological sequence, or seriation) (ae).

Remote sensing: the imaging of phenomena from a distance, primarily through airborne and satellite imaging. (ae)

Rescue Archaeology: or salvage archaeology, the location and recording (usually through excavation) of archaeological sites in advance of highway construction, draining projects, or urban development. (ae)

Research Design: systematic planning of archaeological research, usually including 1) formation strategy to resolve a particular excavation 2) the collection and recording of the evidence 3) the processing and analysis of these data and their interpretation and 4) the publication of the results. (ae)


Screening: also sifting or sieving, a process of turning over toil in a tub with a screen on the bottom. This process is used to recover small artifacts from the soil. (Field Handbook)

Secondary source: accounts copied at a much later date; i.e. regional histories. (field handbook)

Seration: a relative dating technique based on the chronological ordering of a group of artifacts or assemblages, where the most similar are placed adjacent to each other in the series. (ae)

Scholarly value: references which are primary sources and peer review.

Simple Random Sampling: sampling where areas to be sampled are chosen using a table of random numbers.
Drawbacks are 1) defining the site’s boundaries initially; 2) the nature of random number tables results in some areas being allocated clusters of sampling squares, while others remain untouched. (ae)

Site: a district spatial clustering of artifacts, features, structures, and organic and environmental remains – the residue of human activity. (ae)

Step-trenching: Excavation method used on very deep sites, such as Near Eastern tell sites, in which the excavation proceeds downward in a series of gradually narrowing steps. (ae)

Stoneware: halfway between porcelain and earthenware, impervious to liquids because of its fine clay and fired to a point where partial verification renders is impervious. (field handbook)

Stratification: the laying down or deposition of strata layers one above the other. A succession of layers should provide a relative chronological sequence, with the earliest at the bottom and the latest at the top. (ae)

Stratified Random Sampling: form of probabilistic sampling in which the region or site is divided into natural zones or strata, such as cultivated land and forest; units are then chosen by a random number procedure so as to give each zone a number of squares proportional to its area, thus overcoming the inherent bias in simple random sampling. (ae)

Stratified Systematic Sampling: a form of probabilistic sampling that combines elements of 1) simple random sampling 2) stratified random sampling 3) systematic sampling, in an effort to reduce sample bias. (ae)

Stratigraphy: the study of the soil by the stratified layers on top of one another (Field Handbook)

Style: areal units representing shared ways of producing and decorating artifacts. (ae)

Subsurface Detection: collective name for a variety of remote sensing techniques operating at ground level, and including both invasive and noninvasive techniques. (ae)

Surface survey: two basic kinds can be identified: 1) unsystematic and 2) systematic. the former involves field-walking, i.e. scanning the ground along one’s path and recording the location of artifacts and surface features.
Systematic survey by comparison is less subjective and involves a grid system, such that the survey area is divided into sectors and these are walked systematically, thus making the recording of finds more accurate. (ae)

Systematic sampling: a form of probabilistic sampling employing a grid of equally spaced locations; e.g. selecting every other square. This method of regular spacing runs the risk of missing (or hitting) every single example if the distribution itself is regularly spaced. (ae)


Taphonomy: the study of processes that have affected organic materials, such as bone after death; it involves the microscopic analysis of tooth marks or cut marks to assess the effects of butchery or scavenging activities. (ae)

Temper: inclusions in pottery clay that act as a filler to give the clay assed strength and workability and to counteract any cracking or shrinking during firing. (ae)

Thermoluminescence (TL): a dating technique that relies indirectly on radioactive decay, overlapping with radiocarbon dating in the time period for which it is useful, but also has the potential for dating earlier periods. it has much in common with electron spin resonance (ESR). (as)

Thin-section analysis: technique whereby microscopic thin sections are cut from a stone object or potsherd and examined with a petrological microscope to determine the source of the materials. (ae)

Total Station: an electronic/optical instrument used in surveying and to record excavations. (ae)

Trace-element analysis: use of chemical techniques for determining the incidence of trace elements in rocks. These methods are widely used in the identification of raw material sources for the production of stone tools. (ae)

Tribes: a term used to describe a social group generally larger than a band, but rarely numbering more than a few thousand; they form settled farms, include pastoral groups whose economy is based on exploitation of livestock. Individual communities tend to be integrated into the larger society through kinship ties. (ae)

Type: a class of artifacts defined by the consistent clustering of attributes. (ae)

Typology: systematic organization of artifacts into types on the basis of shared attribute. (ae)

Trenches: excavation units laid out in multiples of 1M to 2M or divided into squares of 25cm or 50cm within each meter square (Field Handbook)


Uniformitarianism: the principle that the stratification of rocks is due to process still going on in seas, rivers, and lakes; i.e. that geologically ancient conditions were in essence similar to or “uniform with” those of our own time. (ae)






Zone:  in archaeology, a term used to refer to a stratigraphic level within an excavation. (AIA)

Bahn, Paul. Renfrew, Colin. 2015. “Archaeology Essential.” In: Third Edition.New York, NY: ThamesHudson. (ae)
Burke, Heather. Smith, Claire. Zimmerman, Larry. 2009. “The Archaeologist’s Field Handbook.” In: North American Edition. Plymouth, UK: ALTAMIRA PRESS.
(Field Handbook)

Archaeological Institute of America staff. 2015. “Introduction to Archaeology: Glossary”. Archaeological Institute of America. (update: 2015; accessed: 9/10/2015)