by Elizabeth S. Paynter CART Lab Director

Discovering the nature of a site is an investigative hunt. Archaeologists search for pieces of the enormous puzzle of past human activity. This puzzle has pieces of different types and categories. It is brilliant when the pieces fit together easily and a baffling conundrum when they do not. Usually each site is a mix of brilliant certainty and baffling conundrum with missing information.

Artifacts including stone tools, ceramics, cut bone, and glass

Artifacts include stone tools, ceramics, cut bone, and glass

Two categories of common archaeological puzzle pieces are features and artifacts. The difference between an artifact and a feature is portability. An artifact is a moveable item that has been created, modified or used by humans. A feature is not movable, but indicates human alteration or activity. A brick is an example of an artifact while a brick wall is an example of a feature. The artifacts and feature are as important as where they are found. Just like jigsaws create pictures based on where each piece is located, an archaeological site only comes into focus when it is known where the features and artifacts are in relation to each other. When the pieces are scattered, it becomes more difficult or even impossible to see.

Stone foundation and archaeologist cleaning off stone foundation at Old Colchester Park and Preserve in Fairfax Virginia - from the Colchester Archaeological Rearch Team a.k.a. CART

A stone foundation is an example of a feature.

With even partial integrity, a picture may begin to form. We use many tools to help us put the pieces in the right place. Often, discovery happens after everything is carefully excavated with painstaking notes including exact horizontal and vertical location, soil details, any possible disturbances, and what other features and artifacts were found in relation to it.

We will often discuss the importance of the relationship between artifacts, features, and location with those new to archaeology or collecting. It is a topic that comes up often on this blog and in our new volunteer orientation. We refer to it as “context”. We hope to preserve each puzzle piece and record its location in order to bring our history into a better focus.

Even if we do not use the word context, when you join us at work, you will actively see and hear references to it in most everything we do. “Provenience” is the horizontal and vertical location of a feature or artifact. Each bag of artifacts is linked to that provenience through a bag or field specimen number. Stratum is a layer of soil or rock in the ground. Stratigraphy is the order and relative position of strata and their relationship to time. We pay close attention to changes in soil layers and the stratigraphy of the locations we dig. The law of superposition states that in undisturbed stratigraphy, the oldest layer will be on the bottom and the newest on the top.


A time period can be linked to a stratum through several different methods. Some of these methods, like identifying diagnostic artifacts, we have discussed in recent blog posts. When archaeologists use the term “diagnostic” in relation to artifacts, most often we are referring to objects which have specific beginning and end dates of manufacture and use. Other methods such as carbon dating, dendrochronology or tree ring dating, archaeomagnetic dating require special analysis. As soon as a time period can be identified, archaeological context then becomes a period in time.

We invite everyone to become stewards of our cultural resources in any way they can. Being informed about best archaeological practices and getting to know preservation regulations and laws is an important way to start. On most public lands such as parks, it is illegal to move an artifact or disturb a feature. Help by only collecting or digging with a group that practices responsible excavation, recording and reporting. If you are unsure of responsible practices when it comes to archaeology, you can spend time volunteering with a foundation, group, agency or organization. We offer regular orientations and opportunities to volunteer.

Related Posts:
How can Artifacts “Say” Anything about the Past
Hold History in Hand! Volunteer Archaeology
Let’s Get to the Point about Typologies
Cold Weather Brings Hardware Times in the Lab
Stratigraphy – Soils & Archaeology
Context: “Where it’s at!”


About cartarchaeology

We are the County Archaeological Research Team, part of the Archaeology and Collections Branch, Resource Management Division, Fairfax County Park Authority. We are tasked with understanding and managing the cultural resources on Park land throughout Fairfax County.
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7 Responses to Archaeo-Puzzle

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