Artifacts: What’s all that jargon about?

Here is another one of my posts from the What’s Up, Archaeology? blog!  Here is the Full text:

There’s a whole lot of jargon surrounding the stuff archaeologists’ study, which can confuse even the most experienced in the field (i.e. Thermoluminescence, that’s a fun word).  There are terms I occasionally hear from colleagues, where I just want to yell, ‘just say “dirt” already’ but jargon is important.  Terms like artifact, lithics, ground stone, and so on, help us put things into categories, which then helps us figure out what on earth was going on at some site (i.e. a place where people made/left their stuff).  I will soon be teaching my students the primary artifact types, so that they can get an idea of how archaeologists break down what they see in the field.  Jargon makes us sound all kinds of fancy, but it can create a barrier between archaeology and the public.  The following is just a little rundown of some of the types of artifacts out there.  Hopefully, through the terms, you will see that whatever you’re looking at is more than just a pretty arrowhead or piece of pottery—jargon gives weight/meaning to each of the artifacts we find.

First things first: What is an artifact?

An artifact is anything made by human hands.  In the United States, based on cultural resource management laws, an artifact is anything made by human hands that is 50 years old or older.  That gross rusty evaporated milk can?

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A variety of prehistoric artifacts, including pottery, a hammerstone, a ground stone fragment, and debitage.

That’s an artifact!  That 1,000-year-old basket fragment?  That’s an artifact.  You get the idea.  Artifacts are an amazing tangible link to past people and cultures.  If you find any kind of artifact, please, just take a picture and put it back where you found it; taking an artifact from the site can change how we interpret the past.  Every artifact—even the ugliest of tin cans—matter!

 

Lithics: any artifact made of stone

Do you like stone tools?  Well, those types of artifacts fall under the category of ‘lithics.’  Flint knapping, the process of making stone tools, generates a whole bunch of jargon-laden terms.

-Core: a big chunk of stone, like obsidian, which flakes are removed during the knapping process.

-Hammerstone: a nice rock to hit the core, in order to make flakes.

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Quartzite flakes and debitage.

-Flake: a piece of stone removed from a core to make a tool or debitage.

-Debitage: stone debris knocked off a core that can’t be used for anything else.

Some sites may have a ‘lithic scatter’ where an archaeologist can tell if people were creating stone tools due to the amount of flakes and debitage left behind.

 

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This protohistoric chalcedony knife was made through the knapping process.

Projectile Point: those pointy things

A projectile point is the tool that gets fastened to the end of a spear, dart, or arrow shaft.  Most people are familiar with stone spears and arrowheads, but they also have been made from antler, bone, and copper.  The type of material used for projectile points can tell archaeologists about trade and the style can show cultural change overtime.  Unfortunately, projectile points are some of the most popular artifacts to be taken from archaeological sites.

Ground stone: feel the grind

Ground stone tools are formed by the grinding, pecking, or polishing of one stone with another stone.  These tools include manos and metates, which were used to grind up seeds.  There are pestles that would be used to crush seeds in a carved-out shape on a boulder, as well as beautifully crafted stone axes to pipes.

Ceramics: fire it up

Ceramics are artifacts made of fired clay, including pottery (jars, bowls, etc.), figurines, or really any other objects using fired clay.  Pottery provides archaeologists an incredible amount of information on clay types, trade, design, culture change, cooking, food, and so on.

Potsherds: no, not ‘shards’

A ‘sherd’ is a prehistoric or historic fragment of pottery.  There are many rocks that look like sherds (‘shrocks’) and sherds that look like rocks (‘jerkfaces’), which can make it difficult to distinguish at a site.

Perishables: where’d it go?

Most artifacts observed at archaeology sites are made of long-lasting materials, like stone or fired clay.  It’s not surprising that we typically do not find baskets, blankets, or animal skins at sites.  You need extremely good conditions, like a dry cave, to preserve perishable artifacts or artifacts made from organic materials, to prevent them from completely breaking down overtime.  It’s a particularly exciting day if you find a fragment of any kind of perishable artifact!

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Prehistoric Fremont baskets.  Observed at The Prehistoric Museum, Price, UT.

What's up, Archaeology?

There’s a whole lot of jargon surrounding the stuff archaeologists’ study, which can confuse even the most experienced in the field (i.e. Thermoluminescence, that’s a fun word).  There are terms I occasionally hear from colleagues, where I just want to yell, ‘just say “dirt” already’ but jargon is important.  Terms like artifact, lithics, ground stone, and so on, help us put things into categories, which then helps us figure out what on earth was going on at some site (i.e. a place where people made/left their stuff).  I will soon be teaching my students the primary artifact types, so that they can get an idea of how archaeologists break down what they see in the field.  Jargon makes us sound all kinds of fancy, but it can create a barrier between archaeology and the public.  The following is just a little rundown of some of the types of artifacts out…

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Palimpsest Palooza

pompeii

Did you know that Pompeii is an excellent example of temporal and spatial palimpsests? Fancy pantsy.

What on earth is a palimpsest?  Something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface.  So, Pompeii has both temporal (time stamped/era/period) and spatial (same location and related) palimpsests, since the city is essentially a time capsule.  Alright, you may now carry on with your day.

 

Lithics Galore

 

We certainly love our jargon in archaeology. If you’re on a hike with an archaeologist and they suddenly stop and excitedly shout, ‘Ooo! Lithics!’—you’ll now know what on earth they’re talking about after this episode. A lithic is essentially any artifact made of stone and it is the most common type of artifact archaeologists find at prehistoric archaeological sites, since many artifacts, such as bones or clothes, simply do not preserve well. In some areas, lithic artifacts are the only clues left to figure out what happened in the past. Many types of artifacts fall under the umbrella of lithics, such as flakes, which are the bits of stone knocked off a larger core of rock while flint knapping. Other lithic artifacts include all of those amazing stone tools you see in museums: spear points, projectile points or arrowheads, axes, ceremonial knives, and so on.

Lithic Analysis is the study of lithic artifacts and that analysis can go in many different directions. For example, with a flake you can determine if it is the product of core reduction or from the finishing touches of making a tool, like a knife. Stone tools can act as chronological markers. Certain types of projectile points were made earlier in time than others, giving archaeologists a way to see how tools were manufactured differently over time. From an overall analysis, you can determine what kinds of tools were being created at a site, if certain kinds of materials were being traded, or the specific function of certain stone tools by examining the damage or use of worked edges. Worked edges can help archaeologists determine if a tool was being used to cut wood or meat, or to scrape a hide. So, if a large number of identifiable scrapers were found at a site, it was likely an area for processing hides, skins, or wood. If a lot of projectile points were observed, that site may have been a hunting camp as opposed to a village. Lithic analysis can include determining if a tool was repeatedly –reshaped to prolong its use. So, something like a small projectile point that was made to be smaller and smaller because parts of it broke off.

The most important thing about analyzing stone tool manufacture is that it provides a window into prehistoric lifeways and behavior. There are many examples of experimental archaeology projects where archaeologists have learned flint knapping to better understand the manufacture of stone tools, heat treated materials to see if it knaps more easily to create tools, thrown spears or shot arrows at large haunches of meat to see how those tools break during impact, scrape hides or cut wood to see what kind of use-wear forms on blades or scrapers, replicate tools to better understand their function, and so on. Not only are these projects incredibly important in our understanding of past behaviors, it’s fun.

Please keep in mind that if you’re hiking on public lands, like at a National Park, and you find any kind of lithic, you are more than welcome to pick it up, look at it, take a picture—but always put it back where you found that flake or arrowhead. It is illegal and unethical to take artifacts, no matter how much you want that arrowhead.

Click Here to listen to the ARCH365 episode on the Archaeology Podcast Network. You can also download the episode from iTunes.

Links:

http://archaeology.about.com/od/lterms/g/lithics.htm

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lithic_analysis

Fantastic Book: ‘Lithics: Macroscopic Approaches to Analysis ’ by Andresfky

 

Tin Cans and More

I think historic archaeological sites and artifacts sometimes get a bad rap for not being as interesting or fun for archaeologists to record and it can be difficult to explain to non-archaeologists the importance of protecting a pile of tin cans. I’m not talking about the large-scale heritage sites like Mount Vernon or a wooden fort, but piles of tin cans and other historic rubbish piles. While surveying, I have been guilty of being like, “ugh, another hole-in-top can. Break out gps.” At times, I have to remind myself the importance of recording the past, no matter the date. Where I’ve done most of my work in the southwest, isolated artifacts and dumps can tell us so much about how people lived during the 19th and 20th centuries. And there is so much more than just tin cans—there are beautiful amethyst and aqua glass, fragments of leather shoes, and so on, to discover. In different parts of the United States, amazing historic artifacts have been recovered from the 16th and 17th centuries, such as metal fragments of armor along the Santa Fe Trail. And, then there are all of the unique post-contact artifacts of various Native American groups, such as metal projectile points. So, in a nutshell, historic archaeology can be pretty fascinating.

Please note: it is both unethical and illegal to remove any kind of artifact—prehistoric or historic—from archaeological sites on public lands. It doesn’t matter how nice you think that historic bottle would look on your desk. Leave it!

For type guides on historic artifacts, visit:

-The Society for Historical Archaeology: https://sha.org/resources/20th-century-artifacts/

Women in Archaeology Podscast: ‘Gender’ Artifacts – Episode 29

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Click here to listen on the Archaeology Podcast Network!

An episode I recorded with the rest of the Women in Archaeology Podcast group back in August, which can be found on the Archaeology Podcast Network.  On this episode, the hosts discuss why we view some artifacts as being intrinsically gendered. Specifically looking at why weapons are male and sewing implements are female and how our modern biases affect our views of the past.

Trowel Tales: Favorites in Archaeology

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Check out my newest episode of Trowel Tales.  Episode Summary: On this episode, we’re keeping things lighthearted. Listen to archaeologists’ favorite artifacts, archaeological sites, places, and experiences in the field and how hard it can be to choose just one. For a lot of archaeologists, it’s not just about the stuff. It boils down to the love of discovery and recording the past for future generations.