Archeology has its own lingo. Some terms might be familiar to you, while some are technical and more difficult to understand. Use this glossary to decode what archeologists are talking about. You'll find all of these terms on pages throughout this website.


Absolute dating: A variety of methods for determining an actual date for an archeological site, such as radiocarbon dating or historical documents.

Anthrosol: Soil formed or modified by human activities.

Area of Potential Effect (APE): 1) As per 36 CFR 800.16(d) of the NHPA, “the geographic area or areas within which an undertaking may directly or indirectly cause alterations in the character or use of historic properties, if any such properties exist.” 2) The space in which archeological properties may be affected by activities.

Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA): A a federal law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1979 to aid in the protection of federally managed archeological resources and prosecute individuals that harm these resources.

Archeological property: As per the National Register of Historic Places, the place or places where the remnants of a past culture survive in a physical context that allows for the interpretation of these remains. See the Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Archeological Properties.

Archeological resource: The physical evidence of past humans' activities and cultures. The Archaeological Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and its regulations say, “Archaeological resource means any material remains of human life or activities which are at least 100 years of age, and which are of archaeological interest.”

Archeologist: A professional scientist who is qualified through a combination of education and experience to conduct archeological investigations.

Archeology (or Archaeology): The scientific study of past people through their sites and artifacts.

Artifact: Objects humans made or modified.

Assemblage: A group of similar types of artifacts, artifacts from a similar time period, or a group of artifacts from a particular context.

Associated documentation: Archeologists' records from archeological projects that are curated with the archeological collection.


Back dirt: Soil that has been excavated and sifted for artifacts, after which it is presumed to be of no further archeological significance.

Baulk or Balk: A wall of unexcavated earth left standing between excavation units to help understand the stratigraphy of a site.

Biface: A type of stone tool worked on both sides or faces.

Builder’s trench: An archeological feature formed around an architectural or built structure when the space is backfilled after construction.

Bulb of percussion: A rounded protrusion on a lithic (stone) fragment that results from the blow that separated the fragment from a larger piece of stone.


Ceramic analysis: The study of pottery to identify attributes of the body (such as type of clay or temper) mode of manufacture (hand built, wheel turned, etc.), style, shape (such as a mug, plate, or jug) and other attributes.

Context: Position and associations of an artifact, feature, or archeological find in space and time.

Core: A chunk of stone from which flakes have been removed.

Cortex: The rough outer surface of stone which is removed during stone tool manufacturing.

Culture: A system of behaviors (including economic, religious, and social), beliefs (values, ideologies), and social arrangements. This system is created, transmitted, and imbued through many means of human interaction and is in directly responsible for the production of material objects identified through archeology.

Curate or Curation: The process of cataloging archeological artifacts and associated documentation into a collection to be stored for perpetuity.


Datum: A fixed location from which all measurements on an archeological site are made or calibrated.

Dendrochronology: An absolute dating technique based on tree ring growth patterns.

Deposit: A specific physical structure or element within a soil matrix.

Disturbance: An event or sequence of events, either natural or cultural, that dislodges and disrupts archeological deposits.


Excavation unit (EU): A shovel test pit, trench, or hole created during scientific investigation.

Evaluation: The consideration of eligibility for archeological properties to the National Register of Historic Places, as per the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA).

Excavation: The systematic, scientific process of investigating an archeological site.


Faunal remains: Items left behind when an animal dies, such as bones, hair, scales, hides, and DNA.

Feature: A particular activity area or construction site within an archeological site. Features cannot be easily moved.

Field kit: Supplies commonly used by archeologists to excavate such as digging tools (shovel, trowel, pointy sticks), location tools (North arrow, compass, map), measuring tools (measuring tape, folding ruler), artifact collection tools (shaker screen, paper bags, plastic zip baggies), recordkeeping tools (field forms, pencils, pens); and for personal safety (sunscreen, whistle, towel, first aid kit).

Field records: Excavation notes, measurements, maps, photographs, and any other information that records the facts of an investigation for documentation purposes.

Flake: A lithic (stone) fragment broken from a larger stone during stone tool manufacturing.


Geophysical survey: Methods of non-invasive, ground-based remote sensing techniques for archeological mapping or imaging that measure variability in physical properties of the earth; including magnetometer, survey, earth resistance techniques, and ground penetrating radar (GPR).

Global Positioning System (GPS): An instrument that triangulates a location using orbiting satellites.

Grid: A system of equally sized squares used to map out an archeological site and usually for systematic identification of areas for excavation.


Historic: For the United States, the period of time after Europeans made contact with indigenous peoples in the New World.


In situ: A Latin term that means, “in the original place.”


Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR): A technology using lasers to map surfaces.

Lithic: A stone or relating to a stone.

Lithic analysis: The process of examining a stone artifact to identify its physical attributes, mode of manufacture, and use.

Looting: The illegal act of plundering archeological sites to find artifacts to sell or keep. Common examples include metal detecting at battlefields or removing pot sherds from caves.


Material culture: Any remains from the past manipulated by people, including physical objects and landscapes.

Matrix: The physical place within the earth where archeological deposits and artifacts are located.

Metal detector survey: Use of metal detectors to systematically identify metallic artifact distributions in a large area.

Mend: The ability to fit broken sherds of one vessel back together.

Midden: A domestic waste dump usually consisting of bone, shells, other organic material and oftentimes artifacts.

Mitigation: A process in which archeologists work with contractors; state, tribal, and federal offices; and stakeholders to avoid damaging archeological resources during a project.

Monitoring: The process of an archeologist physically being present at a construction site to ensure archeological resources are not disturbed by the work being conducted.

Munsell Color System: A color-matching system used to systematically document soil colors in the field.


National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA): A federal law passed by the U.S. Congress in 1966. It established the National Register of Historic Places and enacted preservation laws that protect cultural resources, including archeological resources.

National Register of Historic Places: A list of districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects of national, regional, state, and local significance in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture kept by the NPS under authority of the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.


Organic: Material from or relating to living organisms that decay and are sometimes not preserved in the archeological record.

Overburden: Material that overlies an archeological deposit.


Palynology: The collection and study of pollen grains to analyze past climates, vegetation, and diets.

Phase I: A preliminary investigation to determine the presence or absence of archeological resources in a project area.

Phase II: Investigations of archeological sites that include shovel test pits, excavation units or other techniques to establish sufficient data to evaluate the eligibility of a site for the National Register of Historic Places.

Phase III: Excavation of an archeological site to recover as much data as possible.

Photogrammetry: A method to document physical objects and environments through recording and measuring photographic images.

Phytolith: A small fossilized particle of plant tissue.

Plan drawing: A horizontal cross-section of an excavation, often drawn on graph paper.

Plow zone: Soil disturbed by plowing during agricultural processes.

Posthole: A hole bored into the ground to hold an upright post.

Post mold: An archeological feature that is the remains of a post. Sometimes this feature is only a soil stain, and sometimes the physical remains of the post are still present.

Prehistoric: In the United States, the period before Europeans made contact with indigenous peoples in the New World.

Preservation: The act or process of applying measures necessary to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials of an archeological site.

Profile: A vertical cross-section of an excavation wall, often drawn on graph paper.

Projectile point: A stone, biface tool with a hafting element.

Provenance: The history of ownership of an artifact.

Provenience: The precise location where an archeological artifact was found.


Radiocarbon Dating (Carbon Dating, C-14 Dating): A method of absolute dating that identifies the loss of carbon-14 isotopes within a once-living organism.

Reconnaissance: A noninvasive survey that takes place on the ground or aerially to identify archeological features.

Relative dating: The age of an artifact, feature, or site in comparison to other artifacts, features, or sites.

Remote sensing: A method for detecting and monitoring the physical characteristics of an area by measuring its reflected and emitted radiation at a distance, typically from satellite or aircraft.


Shard: a fragment of glass, metal, rock and sometimes ceramics in archeological contexts.

Sherd: A fragment of ceramics (unlike shard, this term is typically specific to only ceramics).

Shovel test pit (STP): A standard method in Phase I surveys in which archeologists dig small holes in a systematic way to determine the location of possible sites. Learn more: What is a Shovel Test Pit?

Site: A place or a group of places where evidence of past human activities is preserved.

Soil sample: Dirt removed from an archeological deposit for additional systematic testing, such as for phytoliths, pollen, botanicals, and other remaining organic materials.

State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO): An official within each state appointed by the governor to administer the state historic preservation program and carry out responsibilities relating to federal undertakings within the state.

Stewardship: The act of ensuring the long-term care and preservation of archeological resources.

Stratigraphy: The study of strata, layers or contexts of soil, sediment and material culture at an archeological site.

Stratum: A layer or series of layers of soil in the ground.


Temper: Material added to clay to reach a desired texture or consistency and aid in the heat retention of a completed pot, such as sand, shell to small flecks of a mineral called mica (flaky and thin, also called muscovite).

Terminus Anti Quem (TAQ): Latin term meaning, “the latest possible date for something,” or the date before which something cannot have been constructed or deposited.

Terminus Post Quem (TPQ): Latin term meaning, “the earliest possible date for something,” or the date after which something cannot have been constructed or deposited.

Total station: A surveyor instrument that combines a transit and electronic distance measuring (EDM) device that calculates vertical, horizonal angles, and distances of survey locations.

Transfer printing: A process for applying designs to ceramics. Learn more: Transfer Printing.

Transit (Theodolite): A surveying instrument that measures vertical and horizontal angles and distances to identify the relative position of lines and objects.

Trench: An excavation unit that is longer than it is wide.

Trowel: A rectangular or wedge-shaped flat tool used to excavate sites.

Typology: The systematic organization of artifacts into different types based on characteristics and chronological systems.


Unintentional disturbance: Accidential interference in an archeological site. Common examples include digging a cat hole or moving rocks to form campfire circles.

Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM): A plane coordinate grid system separated in to different zones.


Vandalism: Intentional damage to an archeological site. Common examples include spray painting or carving grafitti into rock art.

Vessel: A form of container, often used to refer to whole objects, or how a fragment would fit into a whole object.


Ware: Basic technological of functional groups of ceramics; for instance, redware, whiteware, or slipware.

Wear: Micro or macroscopic evidence of stress from a tool or object on an artifact.


X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF): An analytical technique to identify the elemental composition of a material.

Last updated: May 2, 2023