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4.1: Introduction

  • Page ID
    74766
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    Despite what is shown in movies and on TV, most archaeological finds are not golden treasures or priceless pieces of antiquity. Most are items that were used on a regular basis and then discarded due to wear, damage, or loss. This chapter introduces you to the types of materials archaeologists frequently uncover and the settings in which these materials are most often found.

    We tend to think of archaeologists as primarily studying objects made by humans (artifacts), but there is much more to archaeological investigations. Archaeologists are most concerned with context—how an artifact or other type of archaeological data was found in relation to everything else at the archaeological site. A site is a distinct clustering of artifacts in a location that demonstrates human activity, and the number of artifacts needed to qualify a location as a site varies based on the context and, at times, excavation funding. An artifact’s context includes its provenience, exactly where the object was found (horizontally and vertically) in the site; its association in terms of its relationship and positioning with other objects; and the matrix of natural materials such as sediments surrounding and enclosing the object in place. When a site is looted or excavated by amateurs, the context of the artifact is lost even if the artifact is left behind. Excavation strips the site of much of its most important information, components that tell a fuller story of the object and the site, leaving behind an item with no story left to tell. Ideally, items found during an excavation are left in situ, which is Latin for “still,” meaning they are in their original place of deposition. This is why archaeologists tell you to leave any item you find, especially on public land, untouched no matter how tempting it is to pick it up, look at it, and put it in your pocket to show your archaeology professor!

    As previously discussed, artifacts are objects that were used, modified, or made by people. They are also defined as portable and could have been carried by humans from place to place. Common examples of archaeological artifacts are projectile points (arrowheads), ceramic pots, baskets, nails, and glass bottles. Of course, there is a natural preference for complete artifacts since many objects at sites were discarded and were broken before being found, entering the archaeological record because they were thrown in the trash. As a discipline, however, archaeology must analyze all types of artifacts to get the most complete picture of human occupation and behavior. It is also easy to miss single-use artifacts such as a rock used to pound a tent stake in place because no one packed a hammer or mallet. Archaeologists spend much of their time thinking about and analyzing artifacts because the items were made or used by humans and correlate directly to human behavior. Thus, many features of artifacts can be analyzed, such as the material from which they were made, their artistic or functional style, and their design. Archaeologists also create typologies, which provide a way to understand how an artifact such as a pot changed over time in shape, form, and use. Typologies also provide useful estimates of the period in which the artifacts were made.

    Besides artifacts, archaeological sites provide ecofacts: organic and environmental remains such as animal bones, plant remains, and soils that occur at archaeological sites but were not made, modified, or used by humans. Ecofacts can reveal much about human behavior. For example, plant and animal remains can allow archaeologists to reconstruct the environment when humans lived there, effectively telling researchers what types of plants or animals would have been available for humans to use. Another type of object found at sites is a manuport, which is an object brought to the site by humans but not modified by them. For example, an unusual stone material known for its excellent heating properties could be found in a hearth or fire pit. A feature is an artifact such as a hearth, storage pit, midden (trash pile), house, or other structure that is not portable. Together, all of these pieces of evidence observed at and collected from an archeological site make up an assemblage.

    Archaeological sites, which are reflections of human behavior and activities, come in many varieties. At the most basic level, they can be broken down into open sites and natural shelter sites. An open site is one that had no protection from the elements while natural shelter sites such as caves and rock overhangs provide protection from the elements. A cave is technically defined as an opening in a cliff or rock face that is deeper than it is wide, setting it apart from a rock shelter, which is typically a shallow rock overhang or cliff. Site type provides important information for archaeologists. It indicates the likely function of the site and allows archaeologists to predict the types of artifacts and ecofacts likely to be uncovered. An open site, for example, will rarely contain well-preserved perishable artifacts or features because of damage from wind, rain, heat, and cold. Caves, on other hand, are excellent places to find preserved perishable items such as wooden artifacts and basketry.

    Archaeologists also pay attention to the potential functions of a site—how the site was used by humans. Naturally, an important function of many sites is habitation; artifacts are concentrated where people lived for more than a few days or weeks. Sites of short-term habitation such as encampments typically offer few archaeological remains simply because of the short time humans were there. Sites where food was acquired and, in particular, processed are important parts of the archaeological record. They include processing sites where humans prepared plants or animals for consumption, such as animal kill sites and butchering sites; storage sites where items such as grains were kept for long periods of time; hunting blinds and traps humans used to catch and kill animals; and agricultural sites where humans cultivated crops for food and other uses.

    Archaeologists are interested in many other types of sites as well, including quarries where humans harvested stones for tools and building and lithic scatters (sometimes at quarries) where they made and repaired stone tools, which are called lithics. Other sites provide information about human cultures and uses of symbolism, such as rock art sites at which humans painted pictographs, carved or etched petrogylphs, and scraped rocks and the soil to make geoglyphs. Cemeteries also yield important information about a people, even without exhuming the bodies. Finally, more recent excavations dealing with historic archaeology have focused on travel routes such as historic and prehistoric trails identified by shallow linear depressions over the ground and rock faces. Industrial and commercial sites are also an important part of historic archaeology and have a profound impact on our understating of economies of the past.

    As previously mentioned, context at a site is critical to understanding the archaeological data fully. Archaeologists need to understand the types of artifacts and sites they encounter, how such remains can enter the archaeological record, and what can happen to them after they are deposited by humans. The study of what happens to archaeological remains after burial or deposition is called taphonomy. Taphonomy is important because it is likely that buried and deposited objects are not in situ when uncovered by archaeologists. Determining who or what could have caused the item to move from its original depositional location to the current location is important to understanding the complex contextual information presented at the site. For example, a plow in a field could churn the soil, disturbing an unknown archaeological site and redistributing the artifacts. This type of action, caused deliberately or accidentally by human activities, is called a cultural formation process. Natural events, such as a wind storms, floods, volcanic eruptions, and even the effects of plant roots and animal burrowing, are called natural formation processes. When archaeologists understand what forces and events could have had an impact on the position of archaeological remains, they are better equipped to answer questions about whether marks on a bone came from animal gnawing or are signs of early human tool use and whether a collection of artifacts was deposited haphazardly or was affected by a mudslide.

    One very interesting type of natural formation process is turbation in which objects are mixed together. There are many ways for the archaeological record to get mixed up. Examples include roots of plants and trees pushing artifacts away from their original positions (floralturbation) and burrowing animals that push artifacts up or down (faunalturbation). Climate, especially in areas where the ground goes through freeze/thaw cycles (cryoturbation) or wet/dry cycles in clay soils (agrilliturbation), can also affect the position of archaeological remains. At various points during these cycles, the soil swells and deposited objects rise with the soil. When the soil shrinks, objects are pushed downward. Of course, gravity (graviturbation) can also have an impact, especially on objects in wet substrates, and can easily move archaeological materials down a slope, away from their original place of deposition.

    Terms You Should Know

    • agricultural site
    • agrilliturbation
    • animal kill site
    • archaeological site
    • artifacts
    • assemblage
    • association
    • butchering site
    • cave
    • cemetery
    • commercial site
    • context
    • cryoturbation
    • cultural formation processes
    • ecofact
    • faunalturbation
    • feature
    • floralturbation
    • geoglyph
    • graviturbation
    • habitation
    • hearth
    • hunting blind
    • industrial site
    • in situ
    • lithic scatter
    • lithics
    • matrix
    • manuport
    • midden
    • natural formation processes
    • natural shelter site
    • open site
    • petroglyph
    • pictograph
    • processing site
    • provenience
    • quarry
    • rock art
    • rock shelter
    • storage site
    • taphonomy
    • trail
    • trap
    • turbation
    • typology

    Study Questions

    1. Explain why you shouldn’t pick up an artifact you come across in nature.
    2. What are the differences between an artifact, an ecofact, and a feature?
    3. Give an example of a natural formation process and a cultural formation process.
    4. Explain the role turbation can have in moving an artifact from its in situ location. Give an example.

    This page titled 4.1: Introduction is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .