Alabama Archaeology: Glossary

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Absolute dating: Dates expressed as specific units of scientific measurement, such as days, years, centuries, or millenia; absolute determinations attempt to pinpoint a discrete, known time interval. 

Adze: A tool, typically made from stone, that was presumed to be used like a modern woodworker's chisel to work wood.

Anthropology: the comparative study of human culture, behavior and biology and how these change through time.

Archaeology: a method for studying past human culture based on material evidence (artifacts and sites)

Archaic Stage: In Alabama, the stage when early Native Americans lived in small, semi-nomadic bands and survived by hunting, fishing, and foraging for wild foods.

Artifact: any object made, modified or used by humans.  Usually this term refers to portable objects. 

Atlatl: a tool used to throw spears faster and with more accuracy, also known as a spear thrower.  It consists of a short pole with a handle at one end and a hook for engaging the spear in the other.

Awl: a small pointed hand tool used for piercing holes in leather, wood and other materials.

Celt: A thin, ungroved axe with a sharp edge used for cutting or chopping. Probably hafted into a wooden handle.

Chiefdom: Societies headed by important individuals with unusual ritual, political, or entrepreneurial skills. The societies tend to be kin-based, but is more hierarchical, with power concentrated in the hands of powerful kin leaders, who are responsible for the redistribution of resources.

Chronology: The arrangement of events or periods of time in the order in which they occurred.

Chunkey:  This game was played by almost all of the southeastern Indians, with some variation. All of the games made use of a smooth stone disk, usually with concave sides, and two long slender poles were used. Usually only two persons played at one time, but the onlookers wagered on the game. The idea of the game was to start the stone disk rolling along a smooth piece of ground, after which the two players threw their poles after it, with the idea of either hitting the stone, or coming as near as possible to it, when the stone came to a rest.

Context: the relationship artifacts have to one another and the situation in which they are found.

Contact period: refers to the period from A.D. 1500 to 1750. Within this broad framework, initial Native American and European contacts, whether through people, things, or ideas, occurred at different times throughout the state.

Core: A piece of stone that is worked ("knapped"). Cores sometimes serve merely as sources for raw materials; they can also serve as functional tools.

Cosmological: one's view of the universe.

Culture: the set of learned beliefs, values, styles and behaviors, generally shared by members of a society or group.

Diagnostic artifact:  an item that is indicative of a particular time and/or culture group

Direct historical approach:  learning about the past by studying sites and cultures of a known time and working backwards, applying it to older sites; working from the present into the past.

Distribution: A spatial or temporal array of objects or events.

Descendent: Proceeding by hereditary derivation from an ancestor.

Effigy: An object bearing the likeness of an animal or human.

Ethnographic analogy:  inferring the use or meaning of an ancient site or artifact based on observations and accounts of its use by living people.

Excavate: the principal method of data acquisition in archaeology, involving the systematic uncovering of archaeological remains through the removal of the deposits of soil and the other material covering them and accompanying them.

Excavation unit: an area of excavation on an archaeological site; most often archaeologists dig in square meters.

Experimental archaeology: a method of studying artifacts by making and using replicas of them.

Feature: a human-made disturbance in the ground, such as a pit or basin; it is often marked by a distinct stain in the soil.  

Flake:  A thin piece of stone removed from a larger piece with a hammer (usually made of antler or stone).  Flakes have sharp edges and were sometimes used as cutting implements.

Gorget An ornament worn on the chest, suspended around the neck.

Graver: A small tool with a sharp tip that was used to engrave bone, stone, wood or other materials.

Hammerstone: A stone, usually a rounded hard river pebble that shows battering scars resulting from repeated use as a hammer or platform in the flaking process.

History: The study of past events and culture based on written records.

Law of Superposition: The geologic principle stating that in any pile of sedimentary rocks that have not been disturbed by folding or overturning, each bed is older than the layers above and younger than the layers below.

Lithic: Relating to stone.

Looting: To steal, or illegally take, artifacts from an archaeological site; the act of which destroys the evidence archaeologists need to learn from the site.

Megafauna: Large beast, now extinct that roamed Alabama after the last ice age; examples include giant bison, mastodon, wolley mammoth, giant ground sloth, and peccary.

Midden:  an area used for trash disposal, a deposit of refuse.

Mississippian stage: In Alabama, the cultural period usually marked by the formation of large settlements around mounds, the use of shell tempered pottery, increased reliance on cultivating crops, such as maize, and the organization of the people into a chiefdom.

Net Sinker: (also "net weight", "sinker"): a rock used to submerge a fishing net. May be grooved, notched or perforated.

Nomadica way of life in which a group of people have no permanent residence, but move from place to place.

Observation:  the act of recognizing a fact or occurrence, or the record obtained by such an act.

Paleoindian stage:  In Alabama, the first recognized cultural period in the region, usually marked by the appearance of projectile points such as Clovis or Dalton. Paleoindians are characterized as nomadic hunters of megafauna.

Paleontologist: The study of the forms of life existing in prehistoric or geologic times, as represented by the fossils of plants, animals, and other organisms.

Palisade:  A walled enclosure built around a village or town, a stockade.

Permanent village:  A settlement that is continuously occupied by people throughout the year.

Petroglyph:  a design chiseled or chipped out of a rock surface

Phase: An archaeological construct possessing traits sufficiently characteristic to distinguish it from other units similarly conceived; spatially limited to roughly a locality or region and chronologically limited to a relatively brief interval of time.

Pictograph:  a design painted on a rock surface.

Postmold:  A circular soil discoloration caused by decay of a wooden post where it had been buried upright in the ground.

Pottery:  A ceramic item or material made of hard clay, usually in the form of a vessel.

Prehistory:  The period of human experience prior to written records; in the Americas prehistory refers to the period before Europeans and their writing systems arrived, covering at least 12,000 years.

Preserve: To keep safe or protected from harm.

Primary source:  an original diary, letter, or other document written by someone.

Profile: a section, or exposure of the ground, showing depositional or developmental strata or horizons.

Projectile point:  A pointed implement (usually made of chipped stone) that was attached to the end of a spear or an arrow.  This is a general term that includes both spear heads and arrowheads.

Relative dating:  Dates expressed relative to one another (for instance earlier, later, more recent, after Noah's flood, and so forth). 

Rock art: A general term for the pecking, incising, or painting of designs onto rock surfaces.

Rock shelter: a shallow cave or rock overhang large enough to have allowed human occupancy at some time.

Scientific method: The principles and empirical processes of discovery and demonstration considered characteristic of or necessary for scientific investigation, generally involving the observation of phenomena, the formulation of a hypothesis concerning the phenomena, experimentation to demonstrate the truth or falseness of the hypothesis, and a conclusion that validates or modifies the hypothesis.

Scraper: A stone tool designed for used in scraping hides, bones and other similar materials in the preparation of food, clothing and shelter. A small stone blade with uniface flaking.

Secondary source: an account or summary of a historical event not based on direct observation.

Sedentary: Remaining or living in one area; not migratory.

Sherd:  a piece of broken prehistoric or historic pottery or glass.  (Pronounced to rhyme with "herd.")

Site:  A place where human activities occurred and material evidence of these activities is left.

Stage: Represents a designation of time that is much larger than a phase. In Alabama there are four Prehistoric stages: Paleoindian, Archaic, Woodland, and Mississippian.

Steatite:  A type of stone that is soft and easily carved; also called soapstone.

Steward:  one who acts to preserve and/or protect archaeological sites or artifacts.

Stickball:  (Similar to Lacrosse) A ballgame played with sticks with nets at one end and a deer hide ball. The object is to use the netted sticks to throw the ball into the goals at the ends of the fields.

Strata: Layers (the plural of stratum); in archaeology this term generally refers to layers of earth.

Stratigraphy:  The layering of deposits at an archaeological site. Cultural elements and natural sediments become buried over time.  The layer on the bottom is the oldest and the top layer is the youngest.

Subsistence:  the means of supporting life, usually referring to food and other basic commodities.

Vessel:  A hollow or concave utensil for holding something.

Weir: A fence or wattle placed in a stream to catch or retain fish.

Woodland Stage: In Alabama, the cultural period that is marked by the appearance of pottery, the advent of horticulture, and the advent of elaborate ceremonialism.



2000 American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Houghton Mifflin:NewYork.


Cambron, James W. and David C. Hulse

1975 Handbook of Alabama Archaeology: Part 1, Point Types. Alabama Archaeological Society:Huntsville, Alabama.


Fagan, Brian M.

1995 Ancient North America: The Archaeology of a Continent. Thames and Hudson:New York.


Thomas, David Hurst

1998 Archaeology.Harcourt Brace Collage Publishers:New York.


University of California, Santa Barabara


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Historic Alabama | Glossary