Anasazi:  An antiquated archeological term used to describe the Ancestral Puebloans of the 4-Corners Region (Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico).  The Ancestral Puebloans were one of the major Southwest prehistoric cultures, descendants of which include Hopi, Zuni, and other modern Southwest Puebloans. The term itself is Diné (Navajo) for ‘enemy ancestors’ or, more appropriately, ‘ancient people who are not us.’

Anthropology: The study of all aspects of humankind, extant and extinct, employing an all-encompassing holistic approach (Thomas 1998:30).

Antiquities Act:  The American Antiquities Act (officially An Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities [16USC 431-433]) of 1906 was the first federal law protecting archeological materials from looting, making collection from Federal and Indian lands illegal and punishable by both jail time and fines.  The Act also allowed the government to set assign archeological sites and landscapes as National Monuments, a step essential to their protection.

Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act (AHPA):  The AHPA of 1974 updated the Reservoir Salvage Act of 1960, which required the preservation of historic and archeological data in danger because of dam construction, to include all historic and archeological data threatened by any federally guided or assisted activity.

Archeological Resources:  Artifacts, features, sites, specific locations or landscapes; also called Cultural Resources. 

Archeology:  The study of the past through the systematic recovery and analysis of material remains (Thomas 1998:32).

Artifact: Portable objects that are used, modified, or created by human activity.

Assemblage: A collection of artifacts.

Attribute:  A measurable or characteristic physical property of an artifact.  For example, attributes of a ceramic vessel may include size, shape, and decoration.

Authochthony:  Independent development.  In Southwestern archeology, the term authochthony is often used in discussions of possible Mesoamerican influence on the Hohokam of southern Arizona. 

Biblical Archeology:  The study of the archeological aspects of the history of the Jewish and Christian faiths in relation to biblical accounts. 

Biological Anthropology: A subdiscipline of anthropology that views humans as biological organisms; also called physical anthropology (Thomas 1998:30).

Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE): Originally created of as the Bureau of Ethnology in 1879, the BAE worked to collect scientific information aimed at guiding the U.S. government’s “Indian Policy.”  In 1965, the BAE merged with the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian Institution to form the Smithsonian Office of Anthropology in what is now the National Museum of Natural History.  The Smithsonian Office of Anthropology became the National Anthropological Archives in 1968 and remains such today.  Visit the National Anthropological Archives at for more information. 

Ceramic Ware:  A ceramic ware consists of pottery made in a similar technological style across a given region for a specified period of time. 

Ceramic Type: Pottery of the same ware but exhibiting different decorations.

Classical Archeology: The study of ancient Greece, Rome, and their immediate predecessors, the Minoans and Mycenaeans.

Context: All of the associations, or relationships, of a given artifact or feature in its original location.  Context may include the three-dimensional spatial position of the material, the temporal associations, and/ or the cultural affiliations of the material.  Also called provenience. 

Cultural Anthropology: A sub-discipline of anthropology that emphasizes non-biological aspects – the learned social, linguistic, technological, and familial behaviors of humans (Thomas 1998:31).

Cultural Resource: A physical feature, either natural or human made, associated with human activity; includes sites, structures, and objects possessing significance in history, architecture or human development (Thomas 1998:557).  Thomas's definition includes only tangible cultural resources - language, religion, practices, oral traditions, and so forth are also culture resources, although much more difficult to discern in archeological contexts.

Cultural System: The sum of behavior and belief participated in by people in a specific time and place.  Archeologists tend to think of cultures as systems that consist of separate parts or spheres of activity that work together to further the needs of the people participating in the culture.  Cultures thus consist of subsystems such as subsistence, exchange, social organization, ritual and ceremony, as so on.

Curation:  The long-term, professional management and care of objects, associated records, and reports.  Curation is also used to describe the act of keeping an artifact for long periods of time in prehistoric contexts.  For example, many projectile points are described as ‘highly curated,’ meaning they have long use lives and/or are kept by individuals beyond their use lives because they special meaning or function.

Debitage: The debris of stone tool manufacture.  Debitage includes flakes, shatter, and cores, and comprises the most common category of all archeological material.

Dendrochronology:  An absolute dating technique using regional comparisons and established sequences of annual growth rings of trees to determine the precise dates at which the growth rings of the tree were laid down.  Dendrochronology has been used to calibrate radiocarbon dates as far back as 12,400 years.  Also called tree-ring dating.

Direct-Historical Approach:  The direct-historical approach was a method of explanation population early 20th century American anthropology and archeology.  Proponents of the direct-historical approach used modern observations and analogy to extrapolate what prehistory was like at a given site or region. 

Ecofact: Natural remains, such plant and animal remains, charcoal, and pollen, that relate directly to human activity.

Ethnoarcheology:The ethnographic study of people, with a focus on material remains, rather than culture.  Ethnoarcheology aims to collect modern and historic data useful in reconstructing prehistoric lifeways through analogy and model building.  For example, an archeologist may study the ways in which a modern hunter-gatherer butchers an animal so that when a similar pattern of butchering is identified in the archeological record, the archeologist may use the hunter-gatherer case study as an analogy in explaining the how and why of same patterns in prehistory.

Ethnography: The study and description of a single cultural group through direct observation and interaction.

Ethnology:  The generalizing study and description of multiple cultures based on observations and interactions with living people.  The primary aim of ethnology is the comparison of different cultures using data gathered by ethnographers.

Excavation: The careful exposure, documentation, and collection of buried material remains related to past human activities.

Feature:  Non-portable constructions that reflect human activity, examples of which include hearths, postholes, architectural elements, and trails.

Flotation: The suspension of soil samples from archeological sites in water to separate the light fraction (plant remains, seeds, charcoal, and other light materials) from the heavy fraction (gravel, sand, bone, beads, and small flakes).

Geoarcheology:  The use of geology and geomorphology in archeology to better understand and interpret site formation processes, depositional processes, and changes in the landscape over time.

Geomorphology:  The scientific study of landforms and the processes that create them.

Historical Archeology:  Historical archeology studies the remains of cultures with the aid of written history.  In the Old World, historical archeology covers a period of several thousand years; however, in the Americas, historical archeology is limited to the period after the arrival of Europeans.

Historical Particularism:An early 20th century theoretical framework in American anthropology, founded by Franz Boas.  Anthropologists working in this framework argued that each society has a unique historical past, rather than each society following a set ‘path’ of cultural evolution, and that although trade, diffusion, and accident could create similar cultural traits, it was the environmental and historical setting of a society that shaped its evolution.

Hohokam: One of the four major prehistoric archeological traditions of the American Southwest, located primarily in Arizona’s southern deserts.  The word Hohokam derives from the Akimel O’odham (Pima) word Huhugam meaning “all gone” or “all used up.”  The Hohokam were a complex culture for which the earliest distinct characteristics appear ca. A.D. 300.  By A.D. 1450, most characteristics of the Hohokam disappeared, including pottery types, house and ceremonial structures, and a large portion of the population.  Modern descendants include the Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham.

Holocene: The geological epoch of the modern era.  The Holocene began approximately 11,500 years ago, following the termination of the preceding Pleistocene ‘Ice Ages’ and the intermediate Younger Dryas period.

Hunter-gatherer:Hunter-gatherers may be defined either economically or socially.  Economically, hunter-gatherers subsist on wild foods and do not make use of domesticated plants and animals (except dogs).  Wild food subsistence generally also results in small-scale and often very mobile societies. Socially, hunter-gatherers typically have an egalitarian (relatively equal opportunity) society, in which membership is fluid.  The economic definition is that more commonly used, and given the differences in social-organization now known for hunter-gatherer populations, the more accurate.

Isotope: Isotopes are elemental atoms containing a different number of neutrons than the ‘normal’ atom.  For example, in radiocarbon dating, the decay of the carbon isotope 14C (the 14 measures the number of neutrons) into nitrogen (N14) is measured to estimate the date at which an organism died. 

In situ: Latin for ‘in place.’  In archeology, the term in situ is used to describe the original, undisturbed position of an artifact.

Law of Superposition: A basic law of geology and archeology stating that in any undisturbed sequence of deposits, the deeper layers are older than those above them.

Looting: Looting is the illegal excavation or collection of archeological materials.  Archeological materials are protected by a variety of federal, state, county, and even city laws, which means looting can carry harsh penalties.  In fact, the looting activities of the late 19th century resulted in the creation of the first federal law protecting archeological materials in the States – the American Antiquities Act of 1906.

Maritime Archeology: A type of archeology emphasizing human use and interaction with bodies of water, such as the sea, lakes, and rivers, and specializing in the study of water-related technology, such as boats and bridges, as well as the modern techniques necessary for exploring submerged sites and landscapes.

Mean Ceramic Date: The average of all the median dates for all the ceramic types present in an assemblage.

Mexican-American War: The war between American and Mexico over the territories now comprising much of the Southwest and Texas.  The war lasted from 1846-1848, with America the ultimate victors.  To learn more about the war, visit The Mexican-American War website developed by Northern Illinois University Libraries.

Midden: Refuse, or trash, deposit resulting from human activities.

Mogollon:  Mogollon refers to a) the Mogollon Rim, a massive vertical escarpment associated with the forested margin dividing the Colorado Plateau and Southern Basin and Range in central Arizona and western New Mexico; b) one of the four major prehistoric cultures of the American Southwest, and c) the Mogollon Mountains of New Mexico.  The Mogollon primarily occupied the geographical region bearing the same name from approximately A.D. 200 – A.D. 1450, but branches of the Mogollon extended into far northwestern Texas, northern Chihuahua, and possibly into northeastern Sonora.  Although the Mogollon have no recognized direct descendants, Puebloan people such as the Hopi and Zuni can likely trace some of their ancestary back to the Mogollon.

Multivocality:Multiple perspectives contributed by numerous segments of a given society.

National Monuments: National monuments consist of structures, landmarks, and landscapes of historic interest set aside by the government for preservation and the public.  About ¼ of all units in the U.S. National Park System have been created under the authority of the Antiquities Act, the first American law protected archeological resources and granting the government the ability to designate archeological sites as national monuments.

National Register of Historic Places (NRHP):A list of significant historic and prehistoric properties, including districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects (Thomas 1998:559).  The official NRHP website is located at

National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA):  NHPA was enacted in 1966, and is considered one of, if not the most important, national preservation laws regarding archeological resources.  The NHPA created the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP), and established State and Tribal Historic Preservation Offices (SHPOs and THPOs respectively), defined the criteria for determining the significance of archeological materials.  Sections 106 and 110 require federal agencies to evaluate the effects of their undertakings on archeological resources, and to maintain known archeological resources on federally-managed lands.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA): NEPA became law in 1970, and requires federal agencies to consider the environmental impacts and possible alternatives of proposed projects.  Archeological and historical resources are regarded as elements of the environment, and as such are included in the NEPA evaluation process.

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA): Legislative act of 1990, devised to protect Native American burial sites and to return certain kinds of religious materials removed from Indian lands (Thomas 1998:602).  Official NAGPRA website. 

New Archeology: Later called Processual Archeology, New Archeology began in the 1960s.  Led by Lewis Binford, New Archeology rejected the time-space systematic and cultural history programs of previous approaches in archeology, and emphasized an interest in cultural processes, explicitly scientific methods, and the effects of the environment and environmental change on cultural change.

Nomad:  Nomads are highly mobile people who move their home from place to place, often in accordance with seasonal change.  Nomadic people have different levels of social-political organization, variable patterns of movement, a range of subsistence practices, and so on.

Obsidian hydration:A chronometric dating technique that measures the microscopic amount of water absorbed on freshly broken obsidian surfaces.  The principle behind obsidian hydration dating is simple – the longer the artifact surface has been exposed, the thicker the hydration rind will be.  Hydration rates are different for different types of obsidian; therefore, accurate dates are only possible when the obsidian source is known.

Paleoethnobotany: The analysis and interpretation of plant remains from archeological sites in order to understand the past interactions between human populations and plants (Thomas 1998:325).

Pastoralist: Pastoralists are nomadic (highly mobile) people who maintain herds of domestic animals for subsistence, transportation, and trade.

Patayan:  Also called the Hakataya, the Patayan are one of the four major prehistoric cultures of the Southwest.  The Patayan/Hakataya lived along the Colorado River from north of Needles, CA to Gila Bend, AZ.  Descendents of the Patayan/Hakataya include the Quechan and Mojave (Yuman) tribes.

Pecos Classification System: A binomial naming system developed at the 1927 Pecos Conference under the guidance of A.V. Kidder.  Under the Pecos Classification, pottery types are given two parts: 1) the geographical place where the pottery was first found, and 2) a description.  For example, Black Mesa Black-on-white refers to a ceramic type first discovered on Black Mesa, AZ and consisting of black-painted designs on a white background.

Pleistocene: The geological epoch extending from approximately 2.5 million years ago to about 12,800 years ago.  The Pleistocene is best known for the series of ‘Ice Ages,’ or glaciations, defining the period.  More important to anthropology and archeology, however, is the fact that the Pleistocene is the period of human prehistory, from the rise of hominid species to the shift to Holocene bison hunting on the North American Plains.

Post-Modern: A movement in many disciplines rejecting many scientific explanations and approaches, and embracing humanistic methods, as well as emphasizing differences, context and person bias, as well as multivocality.  In archeology, post-modernists (including Marxist, feminist, cognitive, and contextual archeologists to name a few), rejected the positivism (a viewpoint in which only observable scientific knowledge is considered valid) they associated with previous approaches in archeology and anthropology.  In the process, post-modern archeologists raised questions still of importance today, such as “Who owns the past?”

Section 106: Section 106 is part of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966.  Section 106 requires federal agencies to account for the effects of federal projects on significant historic properties, including archeological resources.  Section 106 drives much of modern archeology in the U.S., providing the legal need for archeological investigations, as well as much of the necessary funding.  An important part of the Section 106 process includes consultation with interested parties, including Native Americans and local communities, to identify and resolve potential conflicts.

Seriation: A temporal ordering of artifacts based on the assumption that cultural styles change over time.  The method was developed by A.L. Kroeber using ceramic artifacts; sherds are still the most common artifacts used in seriations.

Sherd:  A fragment of a ceramic artifact. 

Significance: In archeology, significance refers to part of the Section 106 process, which was established as part of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) of 1966, as amended.  Section 106 and its associated regulations in 36 CFR 800, required that all archeological resources encountered during federal projects be evaluated for significance, which is determined by association with an historic event, association with an important person, representation of a distinctive design and a variety of other aesthetic or architectural considerations; and/or the potential to provide important information about prehistory or history.  For example, the location of the Sand Creek Massacre site, although not precisely known in terms of exact geography, is significant because of its association with an important historic event and people.  Likewise, the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright qualifies as significant under Section 106 because it represents a distinctive architecture style and is associated with the work of a master. 

Site:Any concentration of material remains related to past human behavior.  This definition is the simplest used to describe archeological sites; very specific criteria, such as number of artifacts present, are often used to define sites in legal contexts.

Smithsonian Institution: The Smithsonian Institution was created in 1846 after British scientist James Smithson bequeathed his estate to the U.S.  The modern Smithsonian is composed of 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo.  Visit the Smithsonian Institution at for more information.

Stratigraphy:The science of interpreting the layers present within an archeological site.  The basic principle of stratigraphy is the law of superposition, which states that unless disturbed, lower deposits are older than higher deposits.

Systems Approach: Systems approach in archeology views culture as a functional system, made up of sub-systems like subsistence, exchange, ceremonial/religious systems, and social organization.

Thermoluminescence (TL):A type of chronometric dating used on rocks, minerals, and pottery. TL relies on the fact that all natural minerals are themoluminescent, or capable of producing light when heated.  Latent luminenscence builds over time, so the intensity of the luminescence of an object can measure how much time has passed since the last time the object was heated.  The thermoluminscent ‘clock’ resets at approximately 350°C .  The resultant date is a measure of when the object was last heated, so when the ceramic was fired, or when a fire last burned in a hearth.

Transect:  A path across a parcel of land used in archeological surveys to systematically investigate the region for archeological materials.

Type:  A class of archeological artifacts defined by a consistent clustering of attributes (Thomas 1998:235).

Typology:  The systematic arrangement of material culture into types (Thomas 1998:237).

Underwater Archeology: A branch of maritime archeology specializing in submerged sites and landscapes.

Urban Archeology:  A branch of archeology specializing in large towns and cities with long stratigraphic histories of occupation.

Unilinear Cultural Evolution:A theoretical framework in 19th century anthropology that saw Western culture as the pinnacle of social evolution, and placed all other cultures on a scale from most civilized to most primitive.  Some terminology and cultural stages, such as band, tribe, chiefdom, and state, developed under this framework are still used in anthropology today, although the majority of the underlying theories have been discarded.

Younger Dryas: The period between 12.9 and 11.6 thousand years ago dividing the end of the Pleistocene epoch and the beginning of the Holocene epoch.  The Younger Dryas period was characterized by an abrupt return to near-glacial conditions in many locations and the extinction of megafaunal species in North America.


Thomas, David Hurst  1998  Archaeology. Third Edition.  Harcourt Brace and Company, Orlando, Florida.

Part of a series of articles titled Defining the Southwest.

Last updated: October 8, 2015