Glossary

An A to Z of archaeological terms.  I compiled this while studying archaeology and have kept updating it ever since.

A

Acheulian
Later stages of Lower Paleolithic culture defined by their particularly fine handaxes.

Aeolian
Deposited by action of wind.

Antonine Wall
Built during the early 140s AD. Northernmost Roman wall in Great Britain marked the edge of the territory of Hadrian’s successor, Antonius Pius,

Archaeology
“An attempt to understand why things happen; not meerly to describe what happened.”
Archaeomagnetic dating
Dating method for fireplaces or burned earth. area using the earth’s magnetic field, Heat aligns the iron inthe soul or brick to magnetic north at time of heating (but only if it is very hot).The pole has moves over time so comparing the alignment of the iron to current magnetic north North Pole allows us to work out a date.

Artifact
A manufactured object.

Assemblage
A collection of artifacts from a single time or deposit.

Attic
From the area around Athens (Attica).

Avebury
Built around 2,500 B.C. Massive Late Neolithic stone circle in Wiltshire, UK. Definitely worth a visit. For lots of information we recommend you read “Hengeworld” by Mike Pitts.
B
Beaker People
from the Late Neolithic to Early Bronze age (4000-2000 BC), named after their pottery. Styles of pottery known as funnel-beaker, protruding-foot beaker, and bell beaker. Previously it was widely believed that there was an ‘invasion’ of beaker people into the British Isles. This model is being revised by some who argue that a change in funerary style is not strong enough evidence to prove a large population movement.

Blade
A flake of flint or other material used for cuttting.

Border Cave, South Africa
One of the earliest modern human sites on the planet, this rockshelter in the Lembombo Mountains was found by Louis Leakey(?) to contain Homo sapiens skeletons dated around 70,000 years old.

Bulb of percussion
When striking a lump of flint to break a flake from the core, a bulb is often produced by the compression forces involved. The existence of a precussion bulb is one of the first things to look for when determining wether a found stone has been worked by people.
C

Calleva Atrebatum
see ‘Silchester’
Carbon Dation (also Radiocarbon Dating)
When an organism dies, the amount of Carbon14 within it begins to decay at a half life rate of 5730 years; Comparing the amount of C14 in a dead organism to current levels in the atmosphere, gives an estimate of when that organism died.

Chronometric Dating
Dating which provides an estimate of actual age.

Chert
Rock similar to flint. It can be knapped but is mostly of lower quality. Chert is usually found in shades of white, pink, brown and grey. Lots of Chert found in the Lower Thames Valley, UK

Cists
Boxed burials (eg: some of the Neolithic graves at El Garcel, Almeria, Spain) are refered to as Cists burials. The term simply comes from the german word ‘Kiste’ meaning a box or crate.

Component
A collection of artifacts from a site manufactured during a single phase of occupation.

Context
In excavation, the context is the layer of material and other finds which were deposited at the same time. When digging, we find areas of the same soil structure uniterupted by other soils. Each is refered to as a context. Each context is given a reference number and we record what was in each context. It is usually only later when we are looking at all the contexts and their relationships to each other that we get a good understanding of what exactly was going on.
D

Dendrochronology
Dating method using tree rings. Annual weather conditions lead to different ammounts of tree growth every year and this is reflected in the depth of the tree rings.

E

Egypt
Archaeology doesn’t get any better.

Emmer
An early cultivated wheat (see also Einkorn)

Einkorn
An early cultivated wheat (see also Emmer)
F

Feature
Something such as a fireplace, wall, well, or similar that can’t just be dug out of the earth like a coin or pot.

G

Grims Ditch or Grims Dyke
Grim is another name for the devil and deep ditches in the british landscape are often attriubuted to him.

Ggantija temples
In the outskirts of Xagara village on the Island of Gozo (off Malta) there satnds a pair of five chambered ceremonial buildings retained within a single outer wall. Dated to 3000 bc the Ggantija temple complex is believed to be the oldest known man-made roofed structure still in existence.

Glastonbury Lake Village
Beautifully preserved Iron Age occupation in the Somerset Levels, UK. Museum exhibition in Glastonbury town centre also worth a look.

Gozo
Small rocky mediterranian island off Malta, reknown for megalithic structures such as the Ggantija temples.

H

Henge
A monument comprising a circular ditch with an external bank which encloses a circle or number of circles of stones or wooden posts.

Hominids
The group of humans and our close ancestors and related species. These include Neanderthals, Australopithicenes, and others. (Basically if the latin name starts with an “H” its a hominid).

I

The Ice Man
Found high in the Tyrolean Alps in 1991, a Bronze Age hunter who died around 3350-3300 BC, and was preserved with his belongings by the ice. Latest info suggests he might have died as a result of an arrow wound rather than from exposure. He is sometimes refered to by his nickname “Otzi”.

Insula
Roman equivalent of a City Block (PL. Insulae)

Isotope analysis
Isotopic analysis of theratio of carbon13 to carbon14 in human remains can give a good understanding of how much fish was in a persons diet in the final five or so years before death. Not a pefect science, but a useful indicator.
J

Jomon People
Named after a site in Japan (dated around 13000-2500 Before Present), the Jomon culture is currently credited with the invention of pottery, some 12,000 years ago. When Japanese archaeologists tell british archaeologists about the Jomon, the brits get very upset. While the Jomon were building houses and making pots, the mesolithic brits were eating mud and picking their noses.
K
Knapping
The process of shaping stone (commonly flint, chert or obsidian) to produce tools. Modern knappers have also been known to use the thick bases of Coca-Cola bottles! Knapping is carried out using stone, metal, wood and bone tools. There are lots of websites devoted entirely to the subject. Knapping is one of the most accessable examples of experimental archaeology that anyone can try.

L
M

Mean
Arithmetical average. The sum of a series divided by the number of items in that series. You often hear about ‘average’ ages in archaeology, so it helps to know what they are actually saying.

Mesolithic
“Middle Stone Age” (note: term rarely used except in the British Isles)

Midden
A rubbish heap or pit which is high in organic remains (like ‘kitchen middens’ or ‘shell middens’).

Microlith
A very small flake of stone (often flint) which was deliberately removed from a ‘core’ and then used as a tool. Since microliths are often just a centimetre or two long, they were probably hafted onto a wooden handle. The mesolithic period in Britain (12,000 to 4,000 years ago) is particularly associated with microliths.
N
Newgrange
Irish passage tomb of great beauty, built about 3200 BC and re-discovered in 1699

Neolithic
“New Stone Age”

O

P
Palaeolithic
Otherwise known as the ‘Old Stone Age’. This is the time period from about three and a half million years ago untill the end of the last ice-age (approximately 12,000 years ago).

Pressure-flaking
The removal of small flakes by applying controlled pressure with a pointed tool, such as a deer antler tine. This is a technique used in knapping.

Q

Quern
A shaped stone used for grinding grain.

R

Radiocarbon Dating
A method to ascertain the actual age of an organic object (bone, charcoal, seeds, etc) based on the relative ratios of carbon 14 to non-radioactive isotopes of carbon at the time of the analysis.

Relative Dating
Dating an artifact, site or layer as older or younger than something else, rather than absolute dating (eg “this pot was made in 4004BCE”)

Retoucher
A small tool (such as that found on the body of Otzi the iceman) made especially for pressure flaking flint and chert tools. In the iceman’s case, his retoucher was at first mistaken for the stub of a pencil.

Rock Shelter
A small cave or overhang of rock which afforded some degree of protection from the elements either as a permanent camp or temporary location of activity.

S

Samian Ware
A distinctive red, highly polished eathenware pottery style produced in massive quantities between 100 and 300AD in Roman Gaul and the Mosel region.
Seriation
The ordering of artifact types or styles in time based on popularity (the frequency that they occur over a given period of time or in a particiular assemblage of artifacts) or mere presence.

Shell Midden
An archaeological accumulation of shells such as those found on the hebredean islands.

Silbury Hill
The largest(40metres high) prehistoric man made mound in Europe. Silbury Hill is located close to Avebury in Wiltshire.

Silchester (Calleva Atrebatum)
Romano-British town in the Northern Hampshire south of modern Reading. Site of long-term dig by Reading University Archaeology Department.

Site
A place where archaeologists hang out.

Slip
Liquid clay which is painted onto pottery before it is fired to add decoration and to make pourous pottery more water resistant.
T
Tang
A projection from a tool form used for halfting (attaching to a handle).

Thomsen, Christian Jurgen
Pioneering Nineteenth Century Danish archaeologist. Thomson organized his exhibitions at the National Museum in Copenhagen on the basis of three ages: the Stone Age, Bronze Age and Iron Age. His scheme is still used today.

Taphonomy
The processes of movement which affect bones after deposition such as scavenging by animals.

Typology
A way of organising artifacts based on the shared characteristics like shape size and material.
U
V

W
Wattle and Daub
Walls built by building a framework of interlaced twigs or thin split branches (the wattle) which was then daubed with clay or excrement and horsehair to form a surprisingly effective wall. The wattle rarely survives in the ground but the imprint of the latticework of sticks can be seen in the clay daub.
X
Y

Z
Zooarchaeology
the study of fauna (animals) in archaeological context. Because we know that certain animals only thrive in certain contexts, animal remains can help dating and understanding a context.