Archaeological Functions

by Elizabeth PaynterCART Lab Director

When identifying and cataloging artifacts, archaeologists have several methods to increase the understanding of a site based on the collection of artifacts found. One of these methods used is classifying artifacts by function. Function identifies the general purpose or use of an artifact.

Stanly A. South (1928 – 2016) was one of the leaders in establishing historical archaeology in North America. His work was pivotal and his system for classifying artifacts by functional relevance is still widely used in North American historical archaeology. He organized artifacts into nine functional groups: kitchen artifact, bone, architectural, furniture, arms, clothing, personal, tobacco, and the activities group. Now, archaeologists often refer to these as “South’s functions” or simply as functions.

Some common artifacts we find grouped by function:

Kitchen Historic Ceramic Tableware, Glass Bottle
Architectural Nail, Brick, Windowpane
Arms Lead Shot, Gun Flint
Clothing Button, Buckle
Tobacco Pipe Stem, Pipe Bowl

At CART, we have added a few functions to help us analyze activities that occurred on sites. One such function that we added is the toy group. Items such as marbles are classified in this function.


The system is imperfect. Often, archaeologists only find fragments. It can be difficult to determine what an object actually is. The function is then determined by the fragment of an artifact’s most common form or use. Another problem is that occasionally items were repurposed or used differently from their original intention.

Despite any drawbacks, functions are still extremely useful. They allow us to extrapolate patterns that occur on a site and help us determine who lived there and what they may have been doing. On sites where people have lived during different periods in our history, functions are an analytical tool we use to understand how a site may have changed over time. Perhaps an area was once a domestic site, but later was used agriculturally. On larger sites, functions can help us understand the areas of activity. Not only can we determine this from the data itself, but once functional groups are placed on a map based on where each artifact was found, it often brings a site into focus.


South, Stanely A.
1977 Method and Theory in Historical Archaeology. pp 92 – 137.  Academic Press, Inc., New York.,%20Stanley%20A.%20Method%20and%20Theory%20in%20Historical%20Archaeology.pdf accessed August 17, 2017

Hall, Melissa
2016 Archaeologist who Made First Excavations at Bethabara Dead at age 88. Winston-Salem Journal 25 March. accessed August 17, 2017.


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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