Lecture 5: Archaeology: Methods for Studying Material Culture


The study of material remains in order to describe and explain human behavior (Haviland et al., 2009:11).

Material Remain

Anything that reflects human behavior

three types of material remains

  1. Environmental
  2. Remains of human activity
  3. Human remains themselves – Bioarchaeology

Four Goals of Archaeology

  1. Reconstruct human past across time and space
  2. Reconstruct human life ways - Where and when?
  3. Explain how and why the past occurred – context is more important than the object itself.
  4. One of the key concepts of archaeology – Spatial and temporal relationship between archaeology and the artifact
  5. Gives you a better indication of behavior
  6. Primary context - When you find objects as they were originally deposited
  7. Placement and Deposition – Indicating the behavior occurring at the time

4. Interpretation of cognitive and symbolic behaviours of the past

  • The past is important because it tells us about what happened in that place at the time
  • Things become symbols of cultural behavior over time

Widening Archaeological Applications

1. New Dating Techniques

  • More accurate dating

2. “New Archaeology”

  • Redefining archaeological aims

3. Cultural Resource Management – Idea that arch are now being used in applied arch where they are required to make sure there are no arch sites are present

  • Protection of sites

Archaeological Analysis

  1. You must recognize things as items used by humans; items that functioned within a cultural system
  2. You must interpret how the items were used or how they functioned in a cultural system
  3. You must integrate each symbol in its proper system and environment


  • Any object modified by human beings
  • Express a facet of human culture
  • Context is important
  • Primary or secondary
  • If you throw a rock at your prey and it chips, it is now an artifact because its modified by your behavior


  • A categorization of artifacts to answer specific questions about a culture


Items that become associated with a site through natural processes (Give environmental information)

  • Found naturally in an environment Example - Chicken bones
  • Pollen grains – Most common ecofacts; indestructible
  • Fossilized feces – Indicate diet


Things that cannot be taken back to a lab for analysis – Example - Hole, burial – We can take the skeleton and soil samples but not the burial

  • They are part of the earth
  • Moving will alter or destroy them


Place in which human activity occurred – Has to be occupied over a period of time

  • Association – Relationship between all the artifacts within a site
  • Can be as small as an infant’s grave

A spatially distinct place that exhibits evidence of human activity

Characteristics -

  • Fundamental unit of analysis for an archaeologist
  • Primary unit of association for artifacts
  • Must be spatially distinct
  • May be occupied over a period of time

A site or ensemble of related sites represents the material remains of a single cultural system called a COMMUNITY.

  • Sites often found in farms because of the turning of the soil
  • Riverbeds

How Do Archaeologists find a Site?


Clues -

  • Disturbance by human activity - Artifacts
  • Disturbance by natural causes – River banks
  • Vegetation – Poison ivy in ON
  • Often found at clandestine graves
  • Ethnohistorical Data – Documents and artifacts providing data
  • Amateur archaeologists or farmers

Systematic Survey – Similar to missing persons search

  • Walk over an area in regular intervals – Record all artifacts
  • Dig test pits – Dig holes 6 ft apart to look for artifacts
  • Screening – Churning the dirt to look for artifacts
  • Aerial photos
  • Beneath the surface
  • Proton Magnetometer – Magnetic variation in clay structures; when clay gets fired, it traps electrons
  • Electrical Resistivity – Sending electrical currents into the ground; Good for stone walls because it looks at changes in the electrical resistance
  • Ground Penetrating Radar – Radio impulse into the ground, looking for echos
  • Seismic and Acoustic – Sonar, used for underwater excavations
  • Infrared Photography – Looking for living things


  1. Grid system – Grids usually 1m x 1m
  2. Datum point (Reference point)
  3. Excavation of squares
  4. Flotation
  5. Soil screening
  6. Flotation
  7. Soil screening

Fieldwork Records

  1. Strati graphic records
  2. Location & depth of all artifacts
  3. Scale map of all features
  4. Photographs and scale drawing of the objects
  5. Soil samples

In the Laboratory

Artifacts Are -

  1. Cleaned
  2. Catalogued
  3. Analyzed in relation to function, environment, activities, diet etc..
  4. Interpretation
  5. Written report

Two Approaches Taken by Archaeologists

1 .Ethnoarchaeology

Observe & study traditional cultures to resolve archaeological problems


Make or use artifacts to determine their manufacture and function in the past

  • Try to recreate an artifact

Ethical Issues in Archaeology

1. Conservation

Ancient Objects and the idea of ownership of the objects

  • Historical buildings
  • Archaeological sites

2. The Antiquities Trade

3. Indigenous Peoples

4. Gender – Always a push for more female archaeologists and people from the same nation

Archaeology Dating Methods


Involves ordering artifacts into sequences relative to each other

  1. Stratigraphy
  2. Typological sequencing (Cross dating)
  3. Seriation
  4. Fluorine, Uranium & Nitrogen Dating (F.U.N.)
  5. Palynology (Pollen dating)
  6. Palentology (Faunal dating)/Biostratigraphy

1. Stratigraphy - The study of stratification

Artifacts are deposited into layers – Strata

Law of Superposition - One layer lies on top of the other, so that the layer at the bottom is the oldest (Example - Deposited first)

2. Typological sequencing - Cross Dating

  • Classification of artifacts into types
  • Similar artifacts are grouped together
  • Relative dates are assigned to an artifact if it matches other artifacts already recognized within a well-established typological system

3. Seriation - Relative dating technique

  • Order artifacts into a temporal series based on
  • Similar attributes
  • Frequency of the attributes

Seriation Battleship Curves

  • Curve 1 shows a pottery type at the earliest of your site sequence. It is initially at its most popular and it is decreasing in frequency with time.
  • Curve 2 shows the entire lifespan of a pottery type from its origin, through it’s period of maximum popularity and finally to the end as it goes out of style and decreases in frequency
  • Curve 3 shows a pottery type that is at the most recent of your site sequence because it is increasing in popularity.strati5


4. Fluorine, Uranium & Nitrogen Dating (F.U.N.) - Method for the relative dating of bones

  • Bones in the ground absorb fluorine & uranium from the ground H2O
  • Therefore, older bones have more fluorine & uranium
  • Nitrogen – Reversed (Less for older bones)
  • Disadvantages - Site specific, Environmentally variable

5. Palynology (Pollen Dating)

  • Based of the relative dating of pollen grains
  • All flowering plants produce pollen
  • Fit pollen grains at a site to a broader zone sequence

6. Palentology (Faunal Dating) Biostratigraphy

  • Based on the relative extinction of mammalian species
  • Sequence of changing species
  • May be imprecise


Designation of the age of an event, object or fossil in terms of solar years (Absolute time)

  1. Calendar & historical chronologies
  2. Dendrochronology (Tree ring dating)
  3. Radiocarbon dating (C14)
  4. Potassium Argon dating (K/Ar)
  5. Argon/Argon
  6. Fission track dating
  7. Paleomagnetic dating
  8. Amino acid racemization
  9. Electron spin resonance
  10. Thermoluminescence
  11. Obsidian Hydration

1. Calendars & historical chronologies - Connection between archaeological evidence and chronologies & calendars of ancient peoples

  • Example - Ancient Egypt

2. Dendrochronology (Tree ring dating) - Used for wooden artifacts

  • Method for measuring age of wood objects
  • Developed by A.E. Douglass
  • Match ring pattern of wooden artifacts to chronology sequence of trees of the same species in a particular region
  • Dates back about 2000 y.a.

3. Radiocarbon 14 Dating (C14) – Most important dating for human evolution

  • C 14 is v unstable – Passed on thru the carbon cycle
  • Ratio of c14: N14
  • Method for dating organic materials
  • Based on radioactive decay
  • N14 \rightarrow C14 \rightarrow CO2 \rightarrow Plants \rightarrow Animals \rightarrow Death \rightarrow N14
  • ½ life = 5730 years
  • Date back approx. 50,000 y.a.

Not equal to calendar year so it has to be calibrated.

4. Potassium Argon Dating (K40/Ar40) – Radioactive decay of K40:Ar40

  • Based on the principle of radioactive decay
  • Mostly for volcanoes
  • Intense heat causes K40 to turn into Ar40
  • Can date back to anything older to thousands of years ago
  • Long half life – Billions of years
  • Volcanic Rock – Intense heat after an eruption causes a slow decay of K40 \rightarrow Inert gas Ar40
  • ½ life = 1.3 billion years
  • Strata must be 100 – 400 kya
  • Often used to date strata from 1-5 million y.a.

Methods used to check the reliability and validity of K/Ar results

  • Argon/Argon dating (Ar40/Ar39)
  • Fission track dating (Uranium238 decay)
  • Crystal, glass, uranium rich minerals
  • Paleomagnetic dating
  • Shift of earth’s magnetic poles

5. Electron Spin Resonance

  • Attempt to age organic materials from 7-8 thousand years ago
  • Based on bone and shell – Used in dental enamel
  • Covers the gap between the upper one and the lower one
  • Used for organic material
  • Measures trapped electrons within bone & shell
  • Up to 1 million years old

6. Amino Acid Racemization

  • Measures ratio of L amino acids: D amino acids
  • L racemizes to D after death
  • Llooks at the spin of amino acids – Live is left and dead is right
  • Up to 1 million years old

7. Thermoluminescence

  • Ceramics, fired clay, pottery, tile, fired rock
  • Limitation - Its destructive
  • Advantage - Last 10 000 years

8. Obsidian Hydration

  • Important in dating of prehistoric stone tools
  • Obsidian – Volcanic glass (Very sharp edge)
  • Many stone tools are made out of obsidian
  • Nice chipping
  • Rehydrate obsidian to get a date
  • Depends on sunlight, temperature, exposure

Remember if they’re chronological or absolute.


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