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Chapter Summary

  • One of the main concerns of archaeology is the study of artifacts, portable objects made by humans, which provide evidence to help us answer questions about the past. Non-portable artifacts such as hearths and postholes are called features. Locations that show significant traces of human activity, essentially where artifacts and features are found together, are known as archaeological sites.
  • Context is essential to the understanding of past human activity. The context of an artifact consists of its matrix (the material, such as particular layer of soil, surrounding it), its provenience (horizontal and vertical position within the matrix), and its association with other artifacts found nearby. Artifacts found where they were originally deposited in the past are said to be in a primary context. Objects that have been moved since their original abandonment through either natural forces or human activity are said to be in a secondary context.
  • Archaeological sites are created through formation processes. Both the deliberate and accidental activities of human beings such as the building of a structure or the plowing of a field are called cultural formation processes. Natural events that affect archaeological sites such as volcanic ash covering an ancient city or wind-borne sand burying artifacts are called natural formation processes.
  • Given the correct environmental conditions an artifact made of any material can survive. Usually inorganic materials such as stone, clay, and metal survive better than organic materials such as bone, wood, or textiles, which tend to decay in all but extreme conditions.
  • The survival of organic materials depends on the matrix that surrounds them and the climate they were deposited in. The acidic soils of tropical climates are the most destructive to organic materials, while dry, desert environments and extremely cold or waterlogged environments are most likely to preserve them.

Key Concepts

Basic Categories of Archaeological Evidence

Artifacts, p.49
Ecofacts, p.49
Features, p.50
Archaeological Sites, p.50

Importance of Context

Context, p.50
Matrix, p.50
Provenience, p.50
Association, p.50
Primary Context, p.50
Secondary Context, p.50

Formation Processes

Taphonomy, p.52
Formation Processes, p.52
Experimental Archaeology, p.53

Cultural Formation Processes

Original human behavior, p.54
Deliberate burial, p.55
Human destruction, p.55

Natural Formation Processes

Inorganic Materials, p.55
Organic Materials, p.56
Climate, p.58
Waterlogged Environments, pp.59–63
Dry Environments, pp.63–66
Cold Environments, pp.66–71