Archaeological glossary

The following is a list of some archaeological terms that are used on our website. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list. For further terminology, please see the publication of the Historic Resources Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and Tourism of the Government of Manitoba, now hosted by the University of Manitoba

A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z


Absolute Dating:

See Dating, absolute.


Abbreviation of the Latin anno Domini, meaning "in the year of our Lord." When used as a prefix or suffix of a date, it indicates the number of years that have elapsed since the traditional date of the birth of Christ.


The study of humankind in all times and in all places. It takes a comprehensive approach to the study of the origin, behaviour and evolution of humans, looking at their biological, linguistic, cultural, social and economic characteristics and at their variability. (Source: W. Haviland et al., Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson  Learning, 2005)  

Archaeological Object:

An artifact, a sample or any material that is of archaeological interest. (Source: Guidelines for the Management of Archaeological Resources, Ottawa: Parks Canada, 2005)

Archaeological Record:

All the documents — written or electronic, plus drawings, images, etc. — that have been produced and assembled during an archaeological investigation; that are related to the identification, evaluation, documentation, study, preservation or excavation of an archaeological site; and that are vital to understanding the context and significance of the cultural resources.

Archaeological Research (Excavations):

Excavations, surveys or inventories conducted where tangible evidence or potential tangible evidence of past human activities is located. Archaeological research also encompasses the collection and study of archaeological objects as well as any intrusive or non-intrusive work conducted at an archaeological site, on features or on archaeological remains.

Archaeological Resource:

All tangible evidence of human activity that is of historical, cultural or scientific interest. Examples include features, structures, archaeological objects or remains at or from an archaeological site, or an object recorded as an isolated archaeological find.

Archaeological Site:

A place or area where tangible evidence of human activity of historical, cultural or scientific interest is or was located on, above or below the ground, whether submerged or not. The identification, recovery and interpretation of this evidence can be carried out using archaeological research methods.


A set of theories, methods and techniques for the study of human culture and civilization, using scientific investigation of physical remains of past activities.

Artifact (artefact):

Any object manufactured, used, moved or otherwise modified by human beings, including all waste materials and by-products of these processes.


A property or quality of any archaeological object such as the length of a projectile point, the hardness of a potsherd or the colour of a bottle fragment.



The science concerned with the structure, function, distribution, adaptation and evolution of all living organisms including both plants and animals.


The science concerned with the study, classification, structure, ecology and economic importance of plants.


Abbreviation for “Before Christ.” When used as a suffix to a date, it indicates the number of years prior to the traditional date of the birth of Christ that an event occurred.


Abbreviation for “Before Common Era.” When used as a suffix to a date, it indicates the number of years prior to the traditional date of the birth of Christ (or the beginning of the Christian era) that an event occurred. The expression is intended as a non-denominational dating system.


Abbreviation for “Before Present.” Used in the context of radiocarbon dating, the expression refers to the years before 1950.



A pit or mound of stones used to store or hide food or tools.


A mound of stones serving as a monument or marker.


Abbreviation for “Common Era.” When used as a suffix to a date, it indicates the number of years after the traditional date of the birth of Christ (or the beginning of the Christian era) that an event occurred. C.E. is thus equivalent to A.D. or “of the Christian era” and is intended as a non-denominational dating system.


1. A listing of events in the order of their occurrence. 2. The sequence itself. 3. The methodology of placing events in the order of their occurrence.


See Pottery


All actions or processes that are aimed at safeguarding the fundamental characteristics of a cultural resource in order to preserve its heritage value and extend its physical life. This may involve “preservation,” “rehabilitation,” “restoration” or a combination of these actions or processes.


The immediate environment of an archaeological object including its association with other objects and features and its position within the stratigraphy of the site.

Cultural Anthropology:

The study of the habits and customs, behaviour, thought and feelings of human groups. It has two main branches, ethnography and ethnology. Focusing on humans as producers and re-producers of culture, cultural anthropology studies the evolution and functioning of contemporary human culture and society; how culture is transmitted from one generation to another; the cultural, or learned, behaviour of human societies; and the cultural variations among humans. Cultural anthropology is also called social, social-cultural or socio-cultural anthropology. (Sources: W. Haviland et al., Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson  Learning, 2005); and, ©2006, Answers Corporation 2000)

Cultural Landscape:

Any geographical area that has been modified or influenced by human activity or that has been given a special cultural meaning by humans.


The concept of culture can be defined as the “set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of society or a social group” encompassing,“ in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs.” (Source: UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity 2002)



The process of determining the age of an object or the date of an event. Absolute dating: Absolute chronology or determining the actual age of an object or dating it relative to the present (e.g. l000 years ago or 43 B.C.). Relative dating: Relative or historic chronology, or determining the age of an object relative to others of unknown age (e.g. B is older than A but younger than C). Relative dating can thus be used to establish a chronology or sequence whereas the purpose of absolute dating is to anchor the events firmly in time.

Dugout Canoe:

A long, narrow light craft that is usually monoxylous (made out of a single piece of wood).


Abbreviation for deoxyribonucleic acid, a chemical molecule in every cell of all living organisms.



The sum of the external conditions and influences that surround an object or living organism, particularly the ecological and social milieu in which people work and live.


Ethnoarchaeology is the ethnographic or ethnological (cultural anthropological) study of peoples for archaeological purposes. Ethnographic and ethnological data on modern ethnocultural groups — mainly from ethnographic studies of material remains — can help archaeologists reconstruct ways of life in the past. Archaeologists can infer that, in similar environmental circumstances, cultural groups or societies in the past used the same practices (traditions) and techniques as do their modern counterparts. (Based on, Copyright © 2006 Answers Corporation)


The detailed descriptive study of a particular contemporary culture, based mainly on observation and research conducted on location. Ethnography is considered a branch of cultural anthropology. (Source: Based on W. Haviland et al., Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson  Learning, 2005)


A type of historical ethnography. It is the study of past cultures or societies from a combined historical and anthropological viewpoint, using written documents, maps, art and photography, oral sources, place names, material culture, and archaeological and ethnographic data. (Based on W. Haviland et al., Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson  Learning, 2005; and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., New York: Delta, 2001, found on, ©2006, Answers Corporation 2000)


The study and analysis of different cultures and societies from a comparative or historical perspective. Utilizing ethnographic data, ethnology makes intercultural comparisons (comparing and contrasting cultures) and develops theories that help explain why certain important relationships, differences or similarities occur among groups. Ethnology is considered a branch of cultural anthropology. (Based on W. Haviland et al., Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson  Learning, 2005)


Faunal Remains:

These are most often the hard tissues of birds, fish and animals that survive as archaeological objects.


A distinctive element encountered on the surface of the ground or during the course of an excavation that is not in itself an archaeological object. The significance of the object or group of objects may not lie in the objects themselves but rather in the relationship of the objects to each other. Thus, while a pebble, piece of ash or fragment of burned bone would mean little if found in isolation, a concentration of bone and ash surrounded by a circle of stones suggests a cooking area. Therefore, when taken collectively, these elements constitute the feature. Other examples of features could include postholes, storage pits, middens, caches, areas used for stone flaking, collapsed dwellings or burial grounds.



The science concerned with the origin, evolution and structure of the earth.


The branch of geology concerned with the origin, evolution and physical features of the surface of the earth.



All elements that provide proof of the existence of a fire in a particular area, be it a fire for cooking, for warmth or for light. This may be simply the presence of ashes, charcoal, earth blackened by fire, stones arranged in a circle, stones shattered by heat, burned bones or a baked clay floor.


History can be defined as (1) a recounting of past events, written or oral; (2) a continuous, usually chronological, record of occurrences or events in the past; (3) the total accumulation of past events, especially relating to human affairs or the accumulation of developments connected with a particular nation, people, place, person, thing, etc.; (4) a systematic or critical account of or research into a past event, movement, development, phenomenon, etc. (Canadian Oxford Dictionary, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2001)

Historic archaeology:

Archaeological study of a people for whom there are written records. In North America, the term denotes the archaeology of people after European contact. In Canada, historical archaeologists study in particular early forts, fur-trading posts, the residences of early settlers or Aboriginal encampments associated with trade with the Europeans.


A proposition or explanation made provisionally, without assumption of its truth, as a basis for further investigation to determine whether the proposition should be validated or rejected.


Material Culture:

Objects made, modified or used by humans.


A heap or pile of refuse generally located near a previous habitation site.



The action of noting the details of a site, an archaeological object or cultural behaviour and recording critically the collected information.



The study of the characteristics and weathering of soil. As various types of soil form under different conditions, soil analysis at an archaeological site can yield clues about the types of conditions that existed when the site was occupied.


A figure inscribed onto a rock surface by grinding, chiping or incising.

Physical Anthropology:

The systematic study of humans as biological organisms. It focuses on the study of primate evolution (human and non-human), the biological bases of human behaviour, human osteology (the study of bones), genetics, and human biological or physical variation. Physical anthropology is also referred to as biological anthropology. (Based on McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005;  Anthropology: The Human Challenge. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, a division of Thomson  Learning, 2005)


Symbolic pictorial representation of a concept, object, activity, place or event.


A tool with a handle, resembling an adze, that is used to break up hard ground or rock.

Post hole:

A hole dug to receive an upright stake or pole. Postholes are recognizable as holes filled with rotted wood or, in cases where the post has been removed, as circular patches of soil with a different coloration from the rest of the sub-soil.


Containers or other articles made of fired clay. Also referred to as ceramics. The presence of pottery at an excavation site is particularly important for archaeologists because pottery is generally the class of archaeological object that is found in the greatest numbers. Also, because of the malleability of the material, it may be shaped and decorated in an infinite number of ways. Consequently, pottery is a much more sensitive indicator of change over time or of cultural differences among artisans or commercial ceramic makers when compared with more rigid material such as stone. Finally, pottery does not deteriorate with time. Although the pottery found by archaeologists is almost always broken, the fragments (or shards) will not decompose for thousands of years, even if submerged in water.


Period of time before arrival of the first Europeans in North America.


Actions or processes aimed at protecting a resource from change, deterioration or destruction in order to maintain the object in an intact state or to prevent its decay or decomposition.


A side or vertical view that shows the stratigraphy of, for example, an archaeological object or the exposed wall of a unit or a sectioned feature. It is often called a soil profile.


The place of origin of an archaeological object, element or structure and their interrelationships.


Rock Art:

A general term for figures or designs painted or engraved on rock or formed through the placement of boulders. Rock art thus includes petroforms, petroglyphs, petrographs and pictographs.


Sherd (shard):

A fragment of pottery or glass.


In theory, this means having successive layers, similar to a layer cake. According to the law of superposition, in the absence of structural upheavals, upper layers are more recently formed than those beneath. It follows that any objects found in the upper layers are normally more recent than those from lower layers. In a stratigraphic or soil profile, each layer (horizontal layer or stratum) can be seen to have differences in soil colour, type and particle size. If the layers contain objects, the archaeologist can be confident that those from a single stratum "belong together" and are of approximately the same period or event. (This is according to the principle of continuity: one stratum is all of one age throughout its extent.) Furthermore, the archaeologist can be certain that these objects as a rule date from a more recent time than objects from lower levels but are older than those found in the overlying stratum.

Stratum (plural strata):

A level or layer, particularly when part of a series of layers.


Reconnaissance or survey of an area to locate archaeological sites and acquire a preliminary idea of their potential. This evaluation generally is carried out by collecting surface samples and by digging test pits and survey trenches. The term survey also means the systematic division of the archaeological site into grids with unique identification for each grid (an operation called grid layout).


Test pit:

Excavation pit dug to determine whether the area is or is not an archaeological site, or to determine the nature of a cultural stratum.


A style, technique or way of life that persists for a long period of time within a given region.


An attribute, characteristic or distinguishing feature.


A surveying instrument used to measure both vertical and horizontal angles.


A small hand tool consisting of a metal blade attached to a wooden handle. The mason's trowel with its flat blade (as opposed to the scoop-shaped blade of the gardening trowel) is one of the preferred tool for archaeological excavation.

The majority of glossary terms and definitions provided above are drawn from:

  • Guidelines for the Management of Archaeological Resources, Parks Canada, 2005
  • Archaeological Recording Manual: Excavations and Surveys. Version 1. Parks Canada, 2005
  • Publication of the Historical Resources Branch of the Department of Culture, Heritage and Tourism of the Government of Manitoba.

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