A Few Common Archaeological Definitions

Archaeology – the study of human past through material remains.

Artifact – an object that has either been created, modified, used or affected by human beings such as projectile points, ceramics, glass, and nails.

Context – an artifact’s or feature’s physical location and position, the stratigraphic layer where it was recovered, as well as other nearby artifacts or features discovered.

Ceramic – made of clay and hardened by heat such as earthenware pots, brick, or clay tobacco pipes.


Debitage – the rock debris created when making stone tools.

Feature – an unmovable part of an archaeological site that has been created, modified, used or affected by human beings such as a road, structural foundation, midden, privy, well, or hearth.

Flake – a chip of rock removed from an objective piece by pressure or percussion when making stone tools. A type of debitage.

Historic (recorded history) – period in which a culture has its own written record.

In Situ – “in position”, when an artifact is found in its original place of deposit it is said to be found “in situ”.

Law of Superposition – law stating that with undisturbed soil deposits that the youngest layer is on the top with each layer below being slightly older and the oldest layer on the bottom.

Lithic – stone, pertaining to or consisting of stone.

Material Remains – physical evidence of human activity including changes in landscape, sites, and artifacts.

Prehistoric – period before written record.

Projectile Point- pointed object hafted onto the end of a projectile such as a spear, arrow, or dart. Colloquially called an arrowhead.


Protohistoric – period in which one culture with no writing is written about by another culture.

Provenience – horizontal and vertical location of an artifact or feature.

Stratigraphy – geological study of rock and soil layers.

Stratum – a layer of sedimentary rock or soil with consistent features which differentiate it from other layers. Often referred to by archaeologists as a “strat”.


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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1 Response to A Few Common Archaeological Definitions

  1. Pingback: Projectile Points: Triangle -part II | C.A.R.T. Archaeology

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