Glossary of archaeology

This page is a glossary of archaeology, the study of the human past from material remains.


absolute age
The age of an object with reference to a fixed and specific time scale, as determined by some method of absolute dating, e.g. 10,000 BP or 1.9 mya.[1]
absolute dating
Ascertaining the age of an object with reference to a fixed and specific time scale (e.g. calendar years or radiocarbon years), as opposed to relative dating.[2]
aerial archaeology
Archaeological investigations conducted from the air, e.g. using aerial photography or satellite imagery.
A person interested in the collection, curation and/or study of antiquities, particularly in reference to the intellectual tradition that developed in Europe in the 16th–17th centuries and is considered a precursor to modern archaeology.[3]
Ancient artefacts, particularly in the context of their trade and collection.
The ancient past, in particular the period of the earliest historic civilizations (see classical antiquity).
Subdiscipline devoted to the analysis of plant remains in the archaeological record.
See zooarchaeology.
A person engaged in the study or profession of archaeology.
The academic discipline concerned with the study of the human past through material remains.
A physical object made by humans.
Two or more excavated objects that are thought to be related are said to be in association, e.g. artefacts discovered in close proximity within the same context, or architectural features thought to have been standing at the same time.


1.  To re-fill a trench once an excavation has been completed.
2.  Material used for backfilling, usually spoil from the original excavation.
A wall of earth left in place between excavated areas in order to maintain the structural integrity of the trench and/or expose a section to aid in interpretation.
Type of stone tool; a small blade characteristic of Upper Palaeolithic Europe.[4]


1.  As in common usage, information relating to where an artefact or feature was found and what it was found in association with.
2.  In single context excavation, a well-defined stratigraphic unit relating to a single depositional event, used as the primary unit for recording and analysis.


An informal term for an archaeological excavation.
dry sieving
A method of sifting artefacts from excavated sediments by shaking it through sieves or meshes of varying sizes. As opposed to wet sieving, which uses water.[5]


Earthworks are artificial changes in land level, typically made from piles of artificially placed or sculpted rocks and soil


Archaeological investigations taking place in the field, e.g. excavations or surveys.
An informal term for artifacts, features and other things discovered by archaeologists.
finds processing
The preparation of finds from an excavation for storage or further specialist analysis, typically including washing, labelling, sorting and listing in an inventory.
finds specialist
An archaeologist who specialises in the analysis of a particular type of find.
A method for recovering very small artefacts (particularly small fragments of bone and botanical remains) from excavated sediments using water.


industrial archaeology
Subdiscipline devoted to the study of past industry and industrial heritage.
A typological classification of stone tools, e.g. the Mousterian industry, the Acheulean industry.
in situ
Features, artefacts and other remains in their original depositional context, cf. unstratified.


See context.


See archaeobotany.
pollen diagram
pollen profile
pollen spectrum
A series of side-by-side graphs, produced by archaeobotanists and palynologists, showing the frequency of different types (species) of pollen in a soil sample by depth. Usually presented vertically, with the shallowest samples at the top and the deepest at the bottom, to represent a pollen core or other stratified deposit. The depth of the sample corresponds roughly to how old it is, and therefore the vertical axis may also contain an estimate of its absolute age. Used to visualise the environmental history of the place where the sample was taken.[6][7]
A fragment of pottery.


radiocarbon dating
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 5730 + 40 years, meaning that the amount of carbon-14 is reduced to half the amount after about 5730 years. Dates generated by radiocarbon dating have to be calibrated using dates derived from other absolute dating methods, such as dendrochronology and ice cores.


See sieving
A period of time spent working on a particular site or field project.
See potsherd
A colloquial term for professional excavators working in cultural resources management in the United States.
The use of sieves, screens, and meshes to improve the recovery rate of artefacts from excavated sediments (spoil). Can be divided into dry sieving and wet sieving.[5]
Loose sediment excavated from a trench.
spoil heap
A pile of sediment from an excavation, usually located next to a trench.


wet sieving
The use of flowing water to force excavated sediment through a screen or mesh and recover small artefacts. It is more effective than dry sieving in heavier soils and, as part of the process of flotation, can be used to recover very small organic remains.[5]


Subdiscipline devoted to the analysis of animal remains in the archaeological record.

See also


  1. Kipfer 2000, p. 2, "absolute age".
  2. Kipfer 2000, p. 2, "absolute dating".
  3. Darvill 2009, "antiquarianism".
  4. Darvill 2009, "bladelet".
  5. 1 2 3 Kipfer 2000, p. 514, "sieving".
  6. Kipfer, Barbara Ann (2010). "pollen diagram". Archaeology Wordsmith. Retrieved 2017-01-31.
  7. "How To Read A Pollen Diagram". Maryland Archeobotany. Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum. Retrieved 2017-01-31.


Darvill, Timothy (2009). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Archaeology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/acref/9780199534043.001.0001. ISBN 9780191727139. 
Kipfer, Barbara Ann (2000). Encyclopedic Dictionary of Archaeology. New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. ISBN 0-306-46158-7. 
Pearsall, Deborah M., ed. (2008). Encyclopedia of Archaeology. Amsterdam: Elsevier. ISBN 9780123739629. 
Shaw, Ian; Jameson, Robert, eds. (1999). A Dictionary of Archaeology. Oxford: Blackwell. doi:10.1002/9780470753446. ISBN 9780470753446. 
Smith, Clare, ed. (2014). Encyclopedia of Global Archaeology. New York, NY: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-0465-2. ISBN 978-1-4419-0465-2. 
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