Comprehending the Archaeological Record
This chapter defines the components of the archaeological record. It also outlines the processes that lead to the creation of archaeological sites, the factors that influence what is preserved, and the range of activities that disturb the original patterning in material remains.
After studying this chapter, students should be able to
- distinguish between an archaeological site, feature, artifact, ecofact, and cultural landscape.
- indentify and describe the major types of archaeological sites.
- outline the major site formation processes (natural and cultural).
- outline the major site disturbance processes (natural and cultural).
- demonstrate an understanding of material bias.
- demonstrate an understanding of why some environmental conditions are more favorable to preservation than others.
- define all the glossary terms found in the chapter.
behavioral disturbance processes – Human processes such as trampling, scavenging, construction, and looting that affect the original patterning of archaeological remains; also known as cultural disturbance processes and C-transforms. (p.96)
behavioural formation processes – Human processes that lead to the creation of archaeological sites, such as deliberate discard, loss, and abandonment; also known as cultural formation processes. (p.85)
bioturbation – Disturbance of archaeological sites by plants and animals. Examples include a rodent burrowing into the ground and tree roots spreading horizontally and vertically through a site. (p.89)
bog men – Dozens of human bodies preserved in the bogs of northern European countries, especially Denmark. Also known as bog people. (p.93)
cache – A stored quantity of something, usually food or artifacts. (p.86)
cache pit – A pit dug into the ground to store something, usually food. (p.81)
c-transforms – Also known as cultural disturbance processes or behavioral disturbance processes, these are human activities that alter the original patterning of archaeological remains, including trampling and construction activities. The term “c-transforms” was widely used in the 1970s and 1980s but is rarely used in the twenty-first century. (p.96)
cultural formation processes – The human processes that lead to the creation of archaeological sites, such as deliberate discard, abandonment, and loss; also known as behavioral formation processes. (p.85)
cultural landscape – A distinctive geographic area with cultural significance. (p.79)
debitage – Waste from the manufacture of artifacts, usually stone. Also known as detritus. (p.94)
ecofact – Items from archaeological sites, not recorded as artifacts or features, but that are relevant to archaeological interpretations. Includes animal remains, botanical remains, and sediments. (p.79)
faunal remains – Animal remains, including bones, teeth, shells, horns, antlers, fur, hair, nails, claws, talons, and soft tissue. (p.83)
faunalturbation – Disturbance of archaeological sites by animals. (p.94)
feature – A non-portable object that shows evidence of being manufactured, modified, or used by people, or an arrangement of material remains in which patterning is significant. (p.79)
floralturbation – Disturbance of archaeological sites by plants, including trees. (p.94)
grave goods – Items, usually artifacts and food, included with a human burial. (p.86)
in situ – In its original context, undisturbed; literally meaning “in place.” (p.87)
lithic debitage – Waste from the manufacture of stone tools. (p.82)
lithic scatter – A scattering of lithic waste flakes (debitage or detritus) created during the manufacture of stone tools. (p.81)
matrix – The sediments surrounding the artifacts, features, and ecofacts. (p.84)
midden – A large, discrete accumulation of refuse. (p.80)
mummy – Well-preserved animal remains (usually human and including soft tissue) that result from drying, including those intentionally dried and those dried through fortuitous circumstances. (p.93)
natural formation processes – The natural processes that bring sediments into archaeological sites, such as through water and air. Also known as non-cultural formation processes. (p.85)
non-cultural disturbance processes – Natural processes that affect the original patterning of archaeological remains; also known as natural disturbance processes and N-transforms. (p.85)
N-transforms – Natural processes that affect the original patterning of archaeological remains; also known as natural disturbance processes and non-cultural disturbance processes. Although common in the 1970s and 1980s, the term “n-transforms” is used rarely in the early twenty-first century. (p.94)
obsidian – A fine-grained volcanic stone, classified as a glass. Because of its excellent quality for stone tool manufacture, it was traded widely in prehistory. (p.91)
petroglyphs – Designs carved or pecked into large boulders, bedrock, or the walls of cliffs, caves, and rock shelters. (p.81)
phytoliths – Small particles of silica from the cells of plants. (p.83)
pictographs – Paintings on large, immovable boulders or bedrock, or the walls of cliffs, caves, and rock shelters. (p.81)
post-depositional disturbance process – Any process, cultural or natural, that affects an archaeological deposit after it was initially created. (p.93)
pothunting – A generic term used to describe the looting of archaeological sites. (p.96)
potsherd – A broken piece of pottery. (p.82)
primary refuse – Refuse that was abandoned where it was created or used and left undisturbed until found by archaeologists. (p.85)
sacred site – Site with presumed religious or spiritual significance. (p.82)
secondary refuse – Refuse that was moved from where it was initially created. (p.85)
semi-sedentary – Semi-permanent settlement pattern. (p.80)
shell midden – An accumulation of refuse with a substantial amount of shell. (p.80)
site formation processes – The variety of cultural and natural processes leading to the creation of archaeological sites. (p.85)
taphonomy – In a broad sense, both the natural and cultural forces that shape the archaeological record. A narrower and more restrictive definition is that it is the study of what happens to organic remains after death. (p.89)
tell – A term used to describe mounds that have been created by successive settlements in the Middle East, western Asia, and northern Africa. (p.80)
The Archaeological Record
Patrick, Linda E. 1985. "Is There an Archaeological Record?" In Advances in Archaeological Method and Theory, vol. 8, edited by M.B. Schiffer, 27–62. New York: Academic Press.
Site Formation and Disturbance Processes
Schiffer, Michael B. 1987. Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Preservation of Material Found in Archaeological Sites
Brothwell, D.R., and A.M. Pollard, eds. 2001. Handbook of Archaeological Sciences. New York: Wiley.
Final Report on Damage Assessment in Babylon. 2009. International Coordination Committee for the Safeguarding of the Cultural Heritage of Iraq. UNESCO. A 20-page report on the damage done the site of Babylon following the US invasion of Iraq.
Each of the following sites is on the list of World Heritage Sites maintained by UNESCO, except Carnac, Chilkoot Trail, Otzi, and Franklin Expedition Burials. The links lead to the descriptions, which include photos and the rationale for its designation a World Heritage Site. Where the official UNESCO designation differs from the name in the chapter, the UNESCO description is provided in parentheses.