Common Archaeological Definitions II

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by Moni IslamArchaeological Field and Lab Intern

Absolute dating: The calculation of age in exact calendar years of an object or event. It is also referred to as chronometric dating. Absolute dating can often be achieved through scientific processes such as carbon-14 dating and dendrochronology, dated artifacts such as a coin, or the historic record.

Aerial survey: A surveying method that locates archaeological sites from the air involving primarily aerial photography. Aerial survey is one method that can reveal detailed information without disturbing the ground.

Archaeobotany: The study of plant remains found in the archaeological record as well as the interaction between humans and plants.

Assemblage: A collection of artifacts that share a common context.

Classification: The categorization of archaeological materials into distinct groups in which the materials of a group share several defining characteristics.

Excavation: The systematic digging and recovery of material remains at an archaeological site.

Dendrochronology: An absolute dating technique that involves examining tree rings. The trunks of trees form rings annually (one ring for each year the tree is alive) that vary in size and condition according to climatic changes allowing for the establishment of long chronological tree-ring sequences.

Faunal remains: Fauna is the animal life of a particular region, habitat, or geographical area. Animal remains can include bones, teeth, shells, etc.

Floral remains: Flora is the plant life of a particular region, habitat, or geographical area. Plant remains can include seeds, pollen, charcoal, etc.

Paleolithic: The prehistoric period that is associated mainly with the advent of stone tool usage by humans as well as hunting and gathering as the principal method to obtain food.

Radiocarbon dating: An absolute dating technique that involves examining the decay rate of carbon-14 in organic materials. All living organisms contain carbon-14. The decay rate of the element is well-known. This technique is one of the most widely-used methods in archaeology.

Relative dating: The calculation of age of an object or event in relation to another object or event, but not in exact calendar years. It is usually said to be before, after, or contemporaneous with the object or event to which it is being compared.

Remote sensing: A form of surveying that locates archaeological sites or features using non-destructive methods and does not require disturbing the ground including LIDAR and ground-penetrating radar.

Sherd: In prehistoric ceramics, it is typically any broken ceramic vessel fragment. In historic ceramics, it is typically any ceramic vessel fragment that has two intact walls or surfaces.

Shovel test pit (STP): A small excavated pit dug in a systematic pattern and used to detect whether archaeological remains are present. Shovel test pit size and shape is regulated by each state’s State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO) with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources (VDHR) determining the size of STPs to be at least 15 inches (38 cm) in diameter.

Site: Defined by the VDHR as an area that displays evidence of previous human activity greater than fifty years of age that can have an established boundary. Sites can be domestic sites, quarries, roads, shipwrecks, etc.

Survey: The examination of the terrain to attempt to find evidence of previous human activity and, therefore, the discovery of an archaeological site. Surveys in the United States are often conducted in phases (Phase I, II, and III).

Thermoluminescence: An absolute dating technique that involves examining the stored energy in certain types of rocks and sediments. These crystalline materials store energy from the sun, and if heated, they release the stored energy in the form of light at a known rate.

Test unit (TU): An excavation area of a standardized size commonly 3’ x 3’, 1m x 1m, 5’ x 5’, or 1.5m x 1.5m.

Trowel: A mason’s trowel is a flat metal tool that has either a pointed tip or a flat squared off end. For archaeologists, the most commonly used is a mason’s pointing trowel, but the margin trowel is also common. The trowel is adapted by archaeologists through sharpening the edges. It is one of the main tools used by archaeologists in excavations to carefully excavate soils, cut roots, and clean excavation areas.

Zooarchaeology: The study of animal remains in the archaeological record and their interactions with humans.


Harris, Jennifer F. 2001 Jargon Commonly Used by Archaeologists: A Glossary of Terms. Early Georgia 29(1): 87., accessed March 1, 2019.

Hirst, Kris.  2018  Luminescence Dating: A Cosmic Method of Archaeological Dating. ThoughtCo., accessed March 1, 2019.

Kipfer, Barbara A. 2019   Archaeology Wordsmith. Web page,, accessed March 1, 2019.

Virginia Department of Historic Resources. 2017  Guidelines for Conducting Historic Resources Survey in Virginia., accessed March 8, 2019.

West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. 2018  Glossary of Archaeological Terms. Web page,, accessed March 1, 2019.


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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