Visual Arts Look-Up Logo

Archaeology Glossary

Important Archaeological Terms

Main A-Z Index

Archaeology is a key aid to understanding Stone Age culture, as well as the changes introduced by the Neolithic Revolution, as farming replaced the nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle.

It has also shed light on the rival forms of Mesopotamian culture, as well as Ancient Egyptian architecture along the Nile.

In addition, archaeology has enabled us to discover a great deal about prehistoric Chinese and Indian culture, as well as the mesoamerican cultures of the Olmec, Zapotec, Maya, Toltec, and Aztec peoples, from around 1500 BC.


Aboriginal rock art: Art created on stone surfaces by indigenous peoples of the Australian mainland and its islands. Sadly, most carvings are, as yet, undateable by current dating technologies.

Absolute Dating: In archaeology, this refers to techniques that provide precise chronological estimations of artifacts or archaeological sites by determining their age in years, usually through methods such as radiocarbon dating, dendrochronology, or thermoluminescence.

Absolute Age: The precise chronological age of an archaeological artifact or site determined through various dating techniques, such as radiocarbon dating or dendrochronology, providing an exact point in time.

Acheulean Culture: A widespread and long-lived tool tradition, used throughout the populated world between 1.7 mya and 200,000 years ago. It was named after Saint-Acheul on the Somme River in France, where the first artifacts of this style were found in 1859. Characterized by distinctive stone tool technology, including handaxes, bifacial tools, and cleavers, commonly attributed to Homo erectus.

Acropolis: The elevated, fortified area within a city-state or ancient settlement, typically hosting religious, administrative, and defensive structures, and serving as the focal point of the urban landscape.

Adze: A cutting tool shaped like an axe, used for trimming and shaping timber.

Aerial Photography: A method employed in archaeology to capture images of archaeological sites and landscapes from elevated vantage points, often using aircraft or drones, facilitating site identification, documentation, and analysis.

Agora: In ancient Greek city-states, the agora represents the central public square or marketplace, acting as a multifunctional space for political, social, economic, and cultural activities.

Alidade: A surveying instrument used by archaeologists for measuring angles, particularly in the context of mapping and documenting archaeological features and sites.

Alloy: A substance composed of two or more metals or a metal and a non-metal, engineered to enhance material properties and often found in archaeological artifacts.

Alluvial Deposit: Sediment or soil particles that have been transported and accumulated by water, usually occurring along riverbanks or floodplains and containing potential archaeological materials.

Altamira Cave: The first cave in which prehistoric cave painting was discovered. Its 'bison ceiling' is the benchmark for prehistoric polychrome painting.

Altered state of consciousness (ASC): A universal human experience that differs from the 'normal' state of consciousness along a continuum, ranging from daydreaming and sleep to euphoria, and deep trance. ASC is generally accompanied by visions and hallucinations. ASC is triggered by various pathological conditions, sensory deprivation, meditation, and ingestion of hallucinogenic substances. Some archaeologists believe that cave art and its meaning are bound up with ASC, as practiced by shamans inside deep caves.

Amphora: A type of ancient Greek or Roman ceramic vessel, characterized by a two-handled design, commonly used for storing and transporting liquids and other commodities.

AMS (Accelerator Mass Spectrometry): An advanced radiocarbon dating method utilized in archaeology to precisely measure the abundance of isotopes in samples, allowing for accurate dating of organic remains.

Ancient Civilizations: Examples include: Sumerian culture, traditionally seen as the first civilization. Other early cultures from the Fertile Crescent - the so-called 'cradle of civilization' include: Babylonian culture and Assyrian culture. Lesser cultures include the Hittite culture. Elsewhere, Chinese culture was firmly established by the era of Sumer.

Anthropology: A multidisciplinary field encompassing archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and biological anthropology, which tries to establish what defines Homo sapiens, who our ancestors are, what our physical traits are, how we behave, why there are variations among different groups of humans, and how the evolutionary past of Homo sapiens has influenced its social organization and culture.

Anthropomorphic: Objects or features in archaeology that resemble or imitate human forms or characteristics.

Antiquarian: A scholar or collector who studies and appreciates antiquities, historical artifacts, and ancient texts, often preceding the development of modern archaeological methods.

Antiquarianism: An early form of archaeological inquiry focused on collecting and studying antiquities, predating the development of modern archaeology as a scientific discipline.

Antiquary: An individual who studies, collects, or deals with antiquities and historical artifacts, often contributing to the field of archaeology in its earlier stages.

Antiquities: Objects or artifacts from ancient times, usually of historical or cultural significance, frequently discovered through archaeological excavations or other means.

Antiquity: A specific period in the past, typically referring to ancient civilizations and cultures before the Middle Ages.

Archaeoacoustics: New field of paleoarchaeology which investigates acoustic resonance in caves, such as Niaux and Le Portel.

Archaeoastronomy: The study of how ancient cultures observed and interpreted celestial phenomena, investigating their relationship with architecture, monuments, and religious practices.

Archaeobotany: The study of plant remains found in archaeological contexts, providing valuable insights into past agricultural practices, diet, and environmental conditions.

Archaeogenetics: A term invented by British archaeologist Colin Renfrew (b.1937) - is a branch of knowledge which refers to the study of ancient DNA (aDNA) using molecular genetics methods and resources.

Archaeologist: A professional specializing in the scientific study of human history and prehistory through the excavation and analysis of material remains and artifacts.

Archaeology: A scientific discipline that investigates human history and prehistory through the systematic study and analysis of artifacts, structures, and other material remains.

Archaeomagnetic Dating: A dating method that uses changes in the Earth's magnetic field recorded in archaeological materials to estimate the age of the artifacts or structures.

Archaeozoology: Also known as zooarchaeology, this field of study examines animal remains from archaeological sites, and offers insights into past human diet, economy, and interaction with animals.

Archaic: An early stage in human cultural development, often referring to the period between the development of hunting-gathering societies and the emergence of complex civilizations.

Archaic Homo sapiens: The first variant, which emerged about 300,000 BC. The second variant - modern Homo sapiens - was the more advanced variant which we now all belong to.

Ard: Type of primitive plough (plow) used in the Neolithic.

Arrowhead: A small, sharp-edged stone tool or projectile point used as the tip of an arrow or spear, commonly found in archaeological sites.

Artifact: Any portable object that has been made or worked on by humans. Examples: Pottery, Stone Tools, Metal Objects, Bone and Antler Tools/implements, Mobiliary Art, Textiles and Fibers, Building Materials, Symbolic Artifacts - sculpted blocks, figurines - Stones that are part of symbolic arrangements, Coins and Tokens, Jewellery, Ochre Crayons, Inscriptions and Written texts, Features, Biofacts, and Audiofacts.

Assemblage: A collection of artifacts and ecofacts from a specific archaeological context, studied together to understand the site's history, function, and social significance.

Association: The spatial relationship between archaeological artifacts or features within a site, providing crucial information about their context and possible cultural connections.

Asterisk: Star-shape with 3 lines. One of the 32 abstract cave signs found in paleolithic caves.

Aterian: A Middle Paleolithic stone tool industry centred on North Africa, from Mauritania to Egypt, dating to roughly 150,000-20,000 BC. Best known for its tanged or pedunculated tools. The type site is Bir el Ater, in Algeria.

Atlatl: A spear-thrower designed to add greater propulsion to a dart or spear by extending the thrower's arm. Superceded by the bow and arrow no later than 10,000 BC.

Atomic Absorption Spectrometry (AAS): A technique used in archaeology for elemental analysis of artifacts, enabling the identification and quantification of metallic elements.

Augur: An archaeological tool used to probe the subsurface for buried features or artifacts.

Aurignacian: A prehistoric cultural period in Europe associated with the Upper Paleolithic, which lasted from about 40,000 to 30,000 BC. It was the first culture exclusively created by modern humans (Cro-Magnons). The type site is Aurignac Cave in the Haute-Garonne.

Australopithecus: A genus of extinct hominids, whose name comes from the Latin word australis meaning 'southern', and Greek word pithekos meaning 'ape'. It is closely related to the human genus Homo, and may be ancestral to it. Sub-species include: Australopithecus afarensis (3.9 to 3 million years BC), Australopithecus africanus (3 to 2.4 million years BC) and Australopithecus boisei (2.7 to 1.4 million years BC). Australopithecus lived between about 4.5 million and 1.2 million years BC.

Aviform: Bird-shaped sign seen in certain paleolithic caves, such as Pech Merle in the Lot.

Awl: A long pointed tool used for punching holes in leather or marking wood.

Azilian: The final culture of the Palaeolithic in central and south western France and northern Spain, around 8,000 BC. The type-site is Mas d'Azil Cave in the French Pyrenees, noted for its painted pebbles, and microliths with rounded backs - known as Azilian points.

Azimuth: A horizontal angle measured clockwise from the north direction, commonly used in archaeology for orientation and mapping purposes.

Back to top


Bacho Kiro Cave: Located in central Bulgaria, it contained some of the earliest traces of modern humans arriving in Europe.

Back Dirt: Also known as spoil, this is the soil and debris removed during archaeological excavation, carefully set aside for potential reexamination and analysis.

Backfill: The process of refilling an archaeological excavation trench or pit with the removed earth after excavation is completed.

Balk (Baulk): A vertical wall or partition left in place during archaeological excavation to maintain the stratigraphy and facilitate the interpretation of site layers.

Barrow: A mound of earth and stones that covers one or more burials.

Basalt: A dense, dark-coloured volcanic rock often used in ancient civilizations for stone tools, sculpture, and architecture.

Bifacial Tools: Stone artifacts that have been worked on both sides to create a sharp edge, representing a distinctive technology used by early humans for various purposes. The most famous biface was the handaxe, which was made continually for over 1.5 million years. Bifacial tools are associated with the Acheulean industry (1.7 mya to 200,000 years ago) created by Homo ergaster (Africa) and Homo erectus (Asia).

Bilzingsleben: An archaeological site located in Thuringia, central Germany. It may be the home of the world's earliest paleolithic bone engraving.

Bipoint: A stone tool with two pointed ends, typically used for hunting or cutting purposes.

Blade Tools: Associated with the Aurignacian tool industry (40,000-30,000 BC) and introduced by modern humans, blade tools were typically long, thin flakes with parallel sides and sharp edges. Blade tools smaller than about 1.5 cm were known as microblades.

Blombos Cave: A key South African archaeological site containing an ochre factory, and the world's first known drawing.

Boat Grave: A burial practice where a deceased individual or individual's remains are interred in a boat or boat-shaped structure, often found in maritime cultures.

Bradshaw Paintings: A distinctive style of aboriginal rock art found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Named after Joseph Bradshaw who was the first European to discover them in 1891, whilst searching for grazing land for his cattle. Now known as Gwion Gwion paintings.

Brain Endocasts: Fossilized impressions of the internal braincase within the skull, allowing the study of brain morphology and evolution in human ancestors.

Bronze Age: Historical period (roughly 3000-1200 BC) characterized by the widespread use of bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, for tools, weapons, and other artifacts, marking an advancement in material technology.

Bruniquel Cave Constructions: Extraordinary assemblage of speleothems by Neanderthals, in southern France.

Brunton Compass: A specialized compass used in archaeology for precise measurements of angles and orientations of features during fieldwork.

Bulbar Depression: A distinctive feature found on flaked stone tools, resulting from the removal of a bulb of percussion during the tool's manufacture.

Burin: Stone tool common in the Upper Palaeolithic. Usually made of flint, it had a bevelled edge that was in particular used to carve and engrave bone.

Back to top


Cache: Deliberate concealment or burial of objects, often for ceremonial or ritual purposes, discovered as archaeological deposits.

Cactus Hill: An archaeological site in southeastern Virginia, USA, with multiple levels of early occupation. Artifacts include unfluted bifacial stone tools with dates ranging from approximately 13,000 to 15,000 BC. Charcoal deposits recovered from the site date to as early as 17,700 BC, although these deposits may have been made by forest fires.

Canopic Vase: An ancient Egyptian funerary container used to hold the internal organs of the deceased during mummification, each representing a different protective deity.

Carbon Dating: Radiocarbon dating, a widely used method for determining the age of organic materials based on the decay of carbon-14 isotope. See Dating Methods in Archaeology.

Çatalhöyük: Archaeological site of the world's first proto-city, located in Anatolia (Turkey).

Cation-Ratio Dating: A relative dating method that compares the ratios of certain cations in pottery to establish their relative ages.

Ceramics: Objects made from baked or fired clay, such as pottery and ceramic vessels, which are important artifacts used for dating and understanding ancient cultures.

Châtelperronian: A much debated tool industry associated with Neanderthals in central and southwestern France, and northern Spain, from 43,000 to 38,000 BC. Toothed stone tools and flint knives with a single cutting edge and a blunt, curved back were characteristic. The industry gets its name from Châtelperron, the French village closest to the type site, the cave La Grotte des Fées.

Chauvet Cave: The benchmark for prehistoric charcoal drawing.

Chert: A hard, fine-grained sedimentary rock commonly used by ancient people for making stone tools due to its conchoidal fracture and sharp edges.

Chipped Stone Tool: A type of lithic artifact crafted by flaking or chipping rocks to create sharp-edged tools used by prehistoric societies for various purposes.

Chipping: The process of removing flakes or small pieces from a larger stone core to produce stone tools.

Chronometric Dating: Dating methods such as radiocarbon dating or potassium-argon dating, which provide absolute dates for archaeological materials.

Circle: Simple spherical sign. Like those found at Abri Castanet, in the French Dordogne.

Citadel: A fortified area or stronghold usually located in the center of ancient cities, serving as a defensive and administrative hub.

City-state: A self-governing urban center and its surrounding territory, often characterized by a distinct political and cultural identity.

Claviform: Club-shaped symbol. Altamira Cave has the oldest claviform, dated to 34.160 BC.

Clay Coil: A method of constructing pottery vessels by gradually adding and shaping coils of clay.

Clovis Culture: A prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture that first emerged at the end of the last glacial period, about 10,000–9,000 BC. It was characterized by the manufacture of Clovis points and distinctive bone and ivory tools. Clovis artifacts are found throughout most of the United States and as far south as Panama.

Cluster Analysis: A statistical technique used in archaeology to identify patterns and associations among artifacts or sites.

Column: A vertical structural element used in architecture, frequently found in ancient buildings and temples to support roofs and entablatures.

Cognitive Archaeology: A field of study which investigates ancient human cognition, thought processes, and mental structures through the interpretation of material culture.

Coil Pot: A type of ceramic vessel constructed using long coils of clay stacked upon each other and then smoothed together.

Conchoidal: The distinctive, curved, and smooth fracture pattern exhibited by certain materials like chert, obsidian, and glass when broken.

Conservation: The careful preservation, restoration, and protection of archaeological artifacts, sites, and materials to maintain their integrity and prevent deterioration.

Context: The spatial and chronological association of archaeological findings within a site, providing crucial information for interpreting their significance and relationships.

Composite Tool: A tool made by combining different materials, such as a stone blade set into a wooden handle.

Coprolite: Fossilized feces, a valuable source of information about the diet and behaviour of prehistoric humans.

Cordiform: Heart-shaped sign. One of the 32 abstract cave symbols found in paleolithic and neolithic caves.

Core: In lithic technology, this refers to a piece of flint (or other stone) from which flakes or blades are knapped to produce flakes, blades and other stone tools.

Corinthian Column: A style of ancient Greek column characterized by an ornate capital adorned with acanthus leaves and volutes, often used in classical architecture.

Cortex: The outer layer of a flint nodule, which is often removed during stone tool production, revealing fresh material for toolmaking.

Creswellian Culture: Named by Dorothy Garrod, after the type-site of Creswell Crags in the UK Midlands. Characterized by trapezoidal backed blades called Cheddar points.

Cro-Magnons: The oldest modern people in Europe, whose ancestors evolved in Africa. Some of them migrated to Europe, arriving in France (Mandrin Cave) no later than 53,000 BC. Their name comes from the cave of Cro-Magnon in southwest France, where the first specimen was found.

Cropmark: A visible archaeological feature caused by differential growth of crops over buried archaeological remains.

Crosshatch: Intersecting parallel lines. Like the ones at Gabillou Cave.

Cruciform: Cross-shaped symbol. Like the ones at Cosquer Cave, near Marseille.

Crypto-Crystalline Silicate: Crypto-crystalline silicates, like chert or flint, have a crystalline structure not easily discernible under a microscope.

Cultural Anthropology: The study of human societies, cultures, and their development, providing insights relevant to archaeological interpretations.

Cultural Deposit: Layers of soil containing artifacts and ecofacts resulting from human activities at an archaeological site

Cultural Relativism: An approach that seeks to understand cultures on their own terms and without imposing external judgments.

Culture: Embraces the beliefs, customs, social organization, and material artifacts of a specific group or society from a particular time and place.

Cuneiform: One of the earliest forms of writing, comprising wedge-shaped characters impressed on clay tablets, primarily used in ancient Sumer and Babylonia.

Cupules: A non-functional cup-shaped depression hammered out of the rock surface by percussion. Considered by some to be early forms of art. Some of the earliest are in the Auditorium Cave, Bhimbetka, India.

Cursus: A type of Neolithic monument, made up of a long rectangular enclosure with ditches and banks along the outside. The largest cursus in the UK is the Dorset cursus, which is 10 kilometres long.

Back to top


Datum Point: A fixed reference or starting point established during archaeological excavation to precisely record the location and elevation of findings.

Debitage: The waste material resulting from stone tool production, such as flakes, chips, and debris.

Deep-Sea Cores: Sediment samples collected from the ocean floor, providing valuable information for reconstructing past environmental conditions.

Dendrochronology: A dating method that uses tree-ring patterns in wooden artifacts to determine their age and establish chronological sequences.

Denisovans: An extinct group of archaic hominins known from DNA evidence. Classified as a distinct human species, they lived in Siberia, Asia, and Oceania, from about 500,000 BC to 30,000 BC.

Diachronic: Diachronic analysis examines changes over time, enabling the study of cultural and technological developments throughout history.

Diagnostic Artifact: Any artifact that can be definitively linked to a particular time period or culture, aiding in dating and identification.

Diffusion: The spread of cultural traits, ideas, or technologies from one society to another, often resulting in cultural change and interaction between different groups.

Dig: An archaeological excavation or fieldwork carried out systematically to uncover and document archaeological remains.

Divje Babe Flute: World's oldest musical instrument found in Slovenia, possibly made by Neanderthals c.58,000 BC.

DNA: 'Deoxyribonucleic acid' is a nucleic acid that contains the genetic instructions used in the development and functioning of all known living organisms. DNA is the genetic code used in Archaeogenetics to work out the genetic inheritance of various populations around the world.

Dolní Věstonice: An important archaeological site which contains the world's oldest known ceramic objects, dating to c.29,000 BC. See Ancient Pottery around the world.

Doric Column: A type of ancient Greek column characterized by its simple and sturdy design, typically lacking a base and featuring a plain, fluted shaft topped by a simple capital.

Dots: Point, disk, or blob symbol. One of the basic paleolithic abstract symbols found in caves.

Dry Sieving: A technique used in archaeology to separate small artifacts and ecofacts from soil samples using a sieve.

Back to top


Early Humans: Species of Homo-, such as Homo Habilis, Homo erectus and Homo ergaster, which represent early stages of human evolution before modern humans.

Earthenware: Ceramic ware not fired to the point where verification occurs and is therefore light and porous unless glazed.

Earthworks: Human-made structures, like mounds or embankments, constructed by manipulating soil and earth.

Ecofacts: Organic and environmental remains found at archaeological sites that provide information about past human activities and the ancient environment.

Egyptology: The study of ancient Egyptian history, culture, language, and artifacts through archaeological excavation and analysis.

Electrical Resistivity: A geophysical technique used in archaeology to map subsurface features and structures by measuring variations in electrical conductivity.

Electron Spin Resonance (ESR): A dating method used to estimate the age of fossil teeth and other materials containing trapped electrons.

Environmental Archaeology: Study of past interactions between humans and their environments through the analysis of archaeological data.

Eolian Deposits: Sediments transported and deposited by wind, offering insights into past climatic conditions.

Ethnoarchaeology: Study of present-day societies to better understand past human behaviors, technologies, and traditions.

Ethnography: A research method involving the study of contemporary human cultures to provide insights into the interpretation of past societies and behaviors.

Ethnology: A subfield of anthropology that focuses on the comparative study of cultures and societies, often involving participant observation and interviews with living communities.

Evolution: The theoretical process whereby living things like plants or animals develop from earlier forms of life. According to this theory, any variation in the genetic material of a population, which leads to more reproduction, inevitably leads to more members of the species with the favourable genetic trait.

Excavation: The systematic process of uncovering and recording archaeological remains through careful digging and documentation.

Excavation Grid: A systematic network of squares used during archaeological excavations to record and organize spatial data and find artifacts and features within a site.

Experimental Archaeology: A research approach that involves recreating ancient techniques, technologies, and behaviors to gain insights into past practices and their implications.

Extinct: Refers to a species that has died out. For example, mammoths are extinct because there are no more of them alive today.

Back to top


Faunal Remains: Animal bones and other animal-related materials recovered from archaeological sites, which provide insights into ancient human-animal interactions and subsistence strategies.

Feature: A non-portable archaeological element, such as a hearth, wall, or pit, that provides information about past human activities or structures.

Feminist Archaeology: An approach to archaeology that seeks to uncover and address gender biases and inequalities in archaeological research and interpretations.

Fertile Crescent: A region in Western Asia, which includes the (then) highly fertile regions of Mesopotamia and the Nile. The region is known as the 'cradle of civilization', saw the development of the earliest human civilizations, and is the birthplace of many things including, wheat cultivation, pig farming, the first writing system (cuneiform pictographs) and the potter's wheel.

Field Notes: Detailed written records and observations made by archaeologists during excavations or fieldwork to document the context and findings.

Fieldwork: The practical on-site research conducted by archaeologists, involving surveying, excavation, and other data collection methods to study past human societies.

Fill: Material, often sediment or debris, that accumulates in an archaeological feature such as a pit or ditch after it has been dug or constructed.

Finds: Objects or artifacts recovered during archaeological excavations, which may include tools, pottery, metal objects, or organic remains.

Finger Fluting: Finger tracings/ "macaroni". The most famous archaeological site with finger flutings is Koonalda Cave on the Nullarbor Plain, South Australia.

Firehearth: A designated area within a site where evidence of ancient hearths or fireplaces is found, providing important information about ancient cooking and warmth practices.

Fission-Track Dating: A radiometric dating technique used to determine the age of minerals based on the tracks created by spontaneous fission events in uranium atoms.

Flabelliform: Fan-shaped sign. One of the 32 abstract cave signs found in Upper Paleolithic caves.

Flake: A small, sharp fragment of stone that is removed from a core during the process of flint-knapping, often used as tools.

Flake Tools: Previous tools consisted of core stones, shaped by removing flakes from their sides (lithic reduction). The flakes were then largely discarded. Flake tools, by contrast were made by striking a flake from a prepared stone core and then using it as the tool. They were primarily associated with the Mousterian industry - introduced by Homo heidelbergensis or archaic H. sapiens (Africa), Neanderthals (Europe) and H. erectus (Asia). For more, see: History of Stone Tools.

Flint: A hard, fine-grained sedimentary rock frequently used by ancient cultures for making stone tools and weapons.

Flint-Knapping: The skill and technique of shaping flint or other rocks into tools and artifacts by striking and removing flakes.

Floral Remains: Plant materials and remains found in archaeological contexts, providing insights into ancient subsistence, agriculture, and the use of plant resources.

Flotation: An archaeobotanical method used to recover and analyze plant remains from soil samples, providing insights into past vegetation and subsistence practices.

Fluvial Deposits: Sediments and artifacts deposited by the action of rivers or streams, often containing valuable information about past human activities and environmental conditions.

Forensic Archaeology: The application of archaeological techniques and principles to criminal investigations or legal cases to recover and analyze evidence related to crimes or missing persons.

Funerary Archaeology: The study of burial practices and funerary rituals in past societies, examining burial sites, grave goods, and mortuary practices. See, for instance, Ancient Egyptian Pyramids (2670-1540 BC).

Funerary Objects: Artifacts or items placed in graves or tombs as offerings or symbolic items for the deceased to use in the afterlife.


Genus: A class of things that have common characteristics and that can be divided into subordinate kinds. Example: Homo is the genus that includes the extant species Homo sapiens, along with several extinct species such as Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis.

Geoarchaeology: The interdisciplinary study of archaeological sites, combining geological and archaeological methods to understand site formation processes and environmental contexts.

Geochemical Analysis: The analysis of chemical elements and isotopes in archaeological materials, providing information about the source and origin of artifacts and their trade networks.

Geofact: A naturally occurring rock or stone that may be mistakenly identified as an artifact but lacks any evidence of human modification.

Geoglyph: Large-scale ground drawings or motifs created by ancient cultures on the landscape, often visible from the air.

GIS: Geographic Information Systems refers to a computer-based tool used in archaeology, to store, analyze, and visualize spatial data for mapping and interpreting site patterns.

Georadar: see Ground-penetrating Radar

Glaze: A vitreous coating applied to ceramics to produce a smooth and often decorative surface, commonly used in pottery.

GPS: Global Positioning System is satellite-based navigation system used in archaeology to precisely record the geographic coordinates of archaeological sites.

Göbekli Tepe: Site of the world's oldest megalithic architecture c.9500 BC.

Grave Goods: Items buried with the deceased in graves or tombs, intended to accompany them in the afterlife or as symbols of social status.

Graver: A tool used by ancient humans for engraving or incising designs onto bones, antlers, or other materials.

Gravettian: A paleolithic culture, characterized by the production of art, bone tools, and elaborate blade technology. It lasted from about 30,000 to 20,000 BC. Gravettian toolmaking culture is named after the type site of La Gravette in the French Périgord.

Ground-penetrating Radar: A non-invasive geophysical technique used in archaeology to detect buried structures and features by sending radar pulses into the ground. Also known as GPR, or Georadar, or ground probing radar.

Ground Stone Tools: Tools made from stone by grinding or pecking, such as grinding stones, mortars, and pestles, used for food processing and other purposes.

Gwion Gwion: A distinctive style of rock art found in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, previously known as Bradshaws.

Back to top


Half-Circle Sign: Incomplete circular sign. One of the 32 geometric cave symbols found in paleolithic caves.

Half-life: The time it takes for half of a radioactive isotope to decay, crucial in radiocarbon dating for estimating the age of organic materials.

Handaxe: A stone tool mostly used in the Lower Paleolithic period for chopping and cutting. Made by chipping a rock on both sides into a pear- shape, it was made continuously from about 1.4 million to 100,000 years ago. One end of the handaxe is pointed, while the other is curved for holding in the hand.

Handprints: Positive imprint. One of the basic paleolithic abstract signs found in caves.

Hand Stencils: Negative handprint symbol. One of the basic paleolithic abstract signs found in caves.

Harpoon: A type of spear-point with many small ‘hooks’ that was used for fishing and hunting sea animals, during the Upper Paleolithic and Mesolithic.

Harris Matrix: A graphical tool used in stratigraphy to represent the chronological relationships of archaeological layers and features.

Hearth: A fire-pit or fire-hearth, diagnostic of controlled fire at early archaeological sites.

Hellenistic Period: The historical era that followed the conquests of Alexander the Great, characterized by the spread of Greek culture and influence across the ancient world.

Henge: A prehistoric circular or oval earthwork enclosure, often with standing stones or wooden posts, and encircled by a bank and ditch. Associated with gatherings or ceremonial activities.

Hieroglyph: A system of writing used in ancient Egypt, consisting of pictorial symbols and characters.

Hillfort: A fortified settlement located on a hilltop or high ground, built for defensive purposes during the European Iron Age.

Historical Archaeology: The subfield of archaeology focused on investigating and interpreting the remains of societies that left written records, typically from the post-antiquity period.

Hoards: Collections of valuable objects, typically coins or metal artifacts, deliberately buried or hidden, often for safekeeping during times of turmoil or for ritual purposes.

Holocene: The current geological epoch, beginning approximately 11,700 years ago and characterized by relatively stable climate conditions, during which most of human history has occurred.

Hominids: Refers to all modern and extinct human species and other Great Apes. Includes gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans.

Hominins: Refers to the group consisting of modern humans, extinct human species and all our immediate ancestors, including Australopithecus, Paranthropus and Ardipithecus.

Homo: The family group of animals cooloquially known as humans, such as Homo sapiens and Homo Habilis.

Homo erectus: An extinct species of hominin that lived from about 2 million to 140,000 years ago, considered an early human ancestor with significant cultural and behavioral advances. It dispersed across Africa, Middle East, and Asia.

Homo ergaster: An extinct species of hominin considered an early African version of Homo erectus. It lived from 2 nillion BC to 600,000 BC.

Homo habilis: An extinct species of hominin considered one of the earliest toolmakers and a precursor to later hominin species.

Homo heidelbergensis: An extinct species of hominin considered a transitional form between Homo erectus and Homo neanderthalensis. It lived in Africa, Europe, and Asia, from 600,000 to 300,000 BC.

Homo sapiens: The modern human species, characterized by complex cognitive abilities, advanced tool use, and symbolic communication, and the only surviving hominin species. It emerged in Africa around 300,000 BC before dispersing abroad. A more modern variant appeared in Africa around 200,000 BC. This species left Africa for the Middle East around 110,000 BC.

Household Archaeology: An approach to archaeology that focuses on understanding the organization and activities of households in the past, providing insights into daily life and social dynamics.

Housepit: A pit dug into the ground to form the base of a house or dwelling, often found in archaeological sites of various cultures.

Howiesons Poort: A South African tool culture, named after the Howieson's Poort Shelter archaeological site near Grahamstown in South Africa. Dated to between 62,800 and 57,500 BC, it is best known for its backed tools and blades.

Hunter-Gatherers: People who obtain their food from wild plants and animals, not agriculture. Prior to the Neolithic era, all people were hunter-gatherers.

Hypostyle: An architectural term referring to a hall or building with a roof supported by rows of columns.

Back to top


Ideogram: A symbol or character that represents a concept or idea, often used in ancient writing systems.

In situ: Term which describes the original location or context of an archaeological find, where artifacts or features are discovered without being moved or disturbed.

Inorganic materials: Substances that are not derived from living organisms, such as metals and minerals.

Inuksuit: Standing stones constructed in the Arctic.

Ionic Column: One of the classical orders of Greek architecture, characterized by its voluted capitals.

Iron Age: A period in prehistory (roughly 1200-200 BC) following the Bronze Age, which was characterized by the widespread use of iron tools and weapons.

Back to top


K–Ar Dating: A radiometric dating method based on the decay of potassium (K) into argon (Ar) to determine the age of geological and archaeological materials.

Kennewick Man: Name of the skeletal remains of a prehistoric man discovered in 1996, in the Columbia River in Kennewick, Washington, USA. It was dated to 6400 BC, through the stone spear point lodged in the victim's pelvis.

Kill Site: Archaeological site where evidence of large-scale animal hunting and butchering activities is discovered. An excellent example is the type-site of the Solutrean culture, namely the Rock of Solutré (Crôt du Charnier), in France, overlooking the village of Solutré-Pouilly.

Kiln Site: An archaeological site containing remains of kilns used for firing pottery, bricks, or other materials.

Knapping (or Flint-knapping): A technique for making and shaping stone tools and weapons by striking flakes from a core with a hard instrument. Individual flakes or cores can be further modified to create tools.

Back to top


Landscape Archaeology: The study of how human societies interacted with and shaped their surrounding environment throughout history.

Lascaux Cave: World famous for its huge collection of Stone Age cave paintings and engravings.

Law of Superposition: A principle in stratigraphy which states that in undisturbed layers of rock, the oldest layers are found at the bottom and the youngest at the top.

Levallois Technique: A method of stone tool production characterized by the careful preparation of a stone core to produce multiple flakes of predetermined shapes.

Lichenometry: A method of dating surfaces, such as rocks or structures, by measuring the growth rate of lichens.

LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging): This is a remote sensing technology that uses laser pulses to create precise 3D models of archaeological sites, aiding in their study and interpretation.

Linear A: This is an undeciphered script used in the Minoan culture of ancient Crete during the Bronze Age.

Linear B: This is an ancient script used in the Mycenaean civilization of Greece, deciphered in the mid-20th century.

Line Sign: A mark drawn with single stroke. One of the basic paleolithic abstract symbols found in caves.

Lintel: A horizontal beam or stone used to support the weight above an opening, such as a doorway or window.

Lithic: The term lithic refers to objects or artifacts made from stone, such as tools, weapons, and ornaments.

Lithology: The study of rocks and their physical characteristics, used in archaeological contexts to understand the geological context of artifacts and sites.

Locus: A specific unit of an archaeological site, often demarcated for recording purposes and representing a distinct stratigraphic layer or context.

Long Barrow: A type of Early Neolithic burial monument found across Britain, often made up of a few chambers covered by a stone, timber and earth mound.

Back to top


Magdalenian: The cultural period of the final phase of the Old Stone Age, whose type-site is La Madeleine rock shelter. It lasted from 15,000 to 10,000 BC, and is best known for its modern micro tools, and exceptional cave painting at Altamira and Lascaux.

Magnetometer: An instrument used in archaeological surveys to detect and measure magnetic anomalies caused by buried features and artifacts.

Magnetometry: A geophysical technique used in archaeology to detect and map subsurface features by measuring magnetic variations in the soil.

Mandrin Cave: Located just north of Marseille, it contained the earliest known traces of Cro-Magnon modern humans arriving in Europe.

Maritime Archaeology: The study of submerged archaeological sites and artifacts associated with past maritime activities.

Mastaba: A flat roofed tomb situated above a burial chamber. Mastabas were prototype step pyramids, but the mix of mastaba and pyramid style sometimes caused problems: see Meidum Pyramid (completed by 2600 BC).

Material Culture: The physical objects and artifacts produced, used, and left behind by past human societies, which provide insights into their way of life.

Matrix: The surrounding material or sediment that encases an archaeological find.

Meadowcroft Rock Shelter: An archaeological site in Pennsylvania, United States, excavated by James M. Adovasio in the 1970s. Radiocarbon dates from the site indicated occupancy as early as 14,000 BC, and possibly as long as 17,000 BC. The dates are controversial, but if correct, they make Meadowcroft Rockshelter the oldest known Native American cultural site.

Medieval Archaeology: A subfield of archaeology focusing on the study of European societies during the Middle Ages.

Megafauna: Large animals - like woolly mammoths, bears and rhinoceros - that were hunted by humans during the Paleolithic.

Megalith: A very large stone, used in the construction of monuments in the Neolithic and Bronze Age. The word megalith comes from the Ancient Greek 'mega', meaning large, and 'lithos', meaning stone. See also: Megalithic architecture.

Mesolithic: A period in prehistory bridging the gap between the Paleolithic and Neolithic, characterized by the use of microliths and hunting-gathering subsistence strategies.

Metate: A grinding stone used by ancient cultures for processing food items such as grains or seeds.

La Micoque: Middle Paleolithic site in the French Périgord, occupied by early humans for more than aquarter of a million years, from 400,000 to 130,000 BC.

Microfaunal Remains: Microscopic remains of small animals found in archaeological sites, often analyzed to understand past environments and human activities.

Microfloral Remains: Microscopic plant remains, such as pollen and phytoliths, used to reconstruct past vegetation and land use patterns.

Microlith: A small flint tool, usually set in some form of wood or bone haft, such as in a sickle. Microliths are also used as arrowheads, drills, and scrapers, and as knives and engraving tools.

Midden: A refuse heap or deposit of domestic waste, providing valuable archaeological evidence of past human activities and dietary habits.

Moai: These are monolithic human figures carved from rock on the Polynesian island of Easter Island, between the years 1250 and 1500. They supposedly depict the living faces (aringa ora) of deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna). Weighing up to 75 tons each, their production and transportation is regarded as a remarkable intellectual, creative, and physical feat.

Mobiliary Art: Portable art objects, typically created on small, movable items like bone, antler, or stone, providing insights into ancient artistic expressions.

Modern Humans: The species of Homo sapiens to which contemporary humans belong, characterized by advanced cognitive abilities and cultural complexity. Cro-Magnons were the species of modern man that occupied Europe.

Mousterian: An archaeological culture of stone tools (finely crafted tools and flakes from prepared cores), which is associated mainly with Neanderthals in Europe, and the earliest modern humans in North Africa and West Asia, between 160,000 and 40,000 BC. The type-site is Le Moustier Cave in the French Dordogne.

Multilineal Evolutionism: An outdated anthropological theory suggesting that societies progress through similar stages of development but at varying rates.

Back to top


Neanderthals: Extinct hominins who lived in Europe, the Middle East and parts of Asia, between 400,000 and 35,000 BC. Homo neanderthalensis is closely related to, but distinct from, Homo sapiens.

Neolithic: The final stage of the Stone Age characterized by the transition from nomadic hunting and gathering to settled farming communities, marking a significant advancement in human socio-economic and technological development. Lasted roughly from 6000 to 3000 BC. (Dates vary from region to region)

Neolithic Revolution: The transition from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural-based communities, marking a significant turning point in human history.

Neuropsychological Model: An explanatory model for the creation of cave art based on the assumption that all humans have the same nervous system, resulting in the same type of creative images and designs in persons undergoing a trance.

Back to top


Obsidian: A natural volcanic glass with sharp edges that was extensively used by ancient cultures for crafting tools and weapons due to its ability to be easily fractured into razor-sharp flakes.

Ochre Pigments: A family of natural clay earth pigments (reds, yellows, browns) widely used for functional and symbolic purposes, during the Paleolithic. Ochre is treated by archaeologists as an important indicator of cognitive development.

Oldowan: One of the earliest stone tool industries, it is associated with Homo habilis in Africa, and is characterized by simple chipped stone tools, including choppers and flakes, dating back to between 2.9 million years BC and 1.7 million years BC. The Oldowan culture is named after the type-site of Olduvai Gorge, in Tanzania.

Open-Angle Sign: Like a horizontal V-sign. Such as those found at Bédeilhac Cave, in the French Ariège.

Organic: In archaeological terms, organic materials refer to items composed of carbon-based compounds that can decay over time, such as wood, leather, or textiles.

Osteology: The scientific study of bones, commonly employed in archaeology to analyze human or animal skeletal remains for anthropological or paleontological purposes.

Osteomyelitis: An inflammation or infection of bone tissue, often identified in archaeological skeletal remains.

Out of Africa Theory: This holds that all (or nearly all) humans around the world can trace their DNA ancestry back to the first modern humans to leave Africa. It is confirmed by a wide range of evidence, including the fossil record and genetics. This hypothesis - first published in 1871 by Charles Darwin - was speculative until the 1980s, when it was corroborated by a study of present-day mitochondrial DNA.

Outwash Deposit: Sediments left by glacial meltwater, potentially containing archaeological materials.

Oval Signs: Elongated sphere.One of the 32 geometric cave symbols found in paleolithic caves.

Back to top


Palaeoethnobotany: The study of ancient plant remains, such as seeds, fruits, and plant tissues, to understand past human interactions with plants.

Paleoanthropology: The study of ancient human evolution and human ancestors based on fossil evidence.

Paleobotany: The study of ancient plant remains, including seeds, pollen, and plant fragments, to reconstruct past environments and dietary habits of prehistoric societies.

Paleoecology: The study of past environments and ecosystems to understand the interactions between ancient humans and their surroundings.

Paleoentomology: The study of ancient insect remains found in archaeological contexts to provide insights into past environments and human activities.

Paleoindian: The earliest Native American cultures in North America, dating back to the late Pleistocene epoch, characterized by distinctive stone tool technologies.

Paleolithic: An epoch of prehistory from 3.3 million BC to 10,000 BC. It is characterized by the use of stone tools by early human societies.

Paleolithic Caves: These constitute some of prehistory's most valuable archaeological sites.

Paleontology: The scientific study of prehistoric life forms through the analysis of fossils.

Palynology: The study of pollen and spores found in archaeological sites, aiding in the reconstruction of past environments and the dating of ancient sediments.

Papyrus: An ancient writing material made from the pith of the papyrus plant, used by several ancient civilizations to create scrolls and manuscripts.

Passage grave: A type of late Neolithic megalithic monument that has one or more burial chambers covered by an earth mound. The chamber is accessed via a narrow passage. An example is the Newgrange Passage Tomb in Ireland.

Pebble Tools: These are the oldest type of stone tools and are associated with Homo habilis in Africa. They are rounded tools, worked on one side only, with an irregular or serrated cutting edge. The most common pebble tool was the chopper.

Pectiform: Comb-shaped sign. One of the basic paleolithic abstract signs found in caves.

Pedology: The study of soil formation and properties, utilized in archaeology to understand the formation of archaeological sites and interpret past land use.

Penniform: Feather-shaped sign. Like the one just above the Chinese horse at Lascaux Cave.

Petroglyph: A prehistoric rock engraving or carving, created by pecking, incising, hammering or abrading the surface of rocks.

Petrology: The study of rocks and their origins, essential for analyzing lithic artifacts and determining their geological sources.

Physical Anthropology: A subfield of anthropology that studies human biological evolution, variation, and adaptation.

Pictograph: A visual symbol or drawing used by ancient cultures to convey information or represent objects, often found in rock art or as part of ancient writing systems, such as cuneiform and hieroglyphics.

Pinnacle Point: An important set of caves at Mossel Bay, Western Cape, SA. In addition to a wide range of stone tools, the site contains some of the oldest art in Africa.

Pithos: A large ceramic storage container, typically used by ancient Mediterranean cultures for storing food, liquids, or other commodities.

Pithouse: A type of semi-subterranean dwelling often used by ancient cultures for shelter and storage.

Pleistocene: Geological epoch that lasted from c. 2.58 million to 11,700 years ago. It is known for its significant glacial cycles and the presence of early human ancestors.

Polis: An autonomous city-state (e.g. Heliopolis), serving as the political, social, and economic center of its surrounding territory.

Porcelain: A vitrified pottery with a white, fine-grained body that is usually translucent, as distinguished from earthenware, which is porous, opaque, and coarser. Porcelain has a finer grain than stoneware.

Portal dolmen: A type of early Neolithic megalithic burial monument, usually formed from three large upright megaliths and one massive capstone.

Potsherd: A broken piece of pottery or ceramic material, often found in archaeological sites, used for understanding ancient pottery styles and functions.

Pottery: Ceramic vessels and objects created by humans, used for domestic, artistic and/or ritual purposes.

Pre-ceramic period: A stage in prehistory before the invention and widespread use of pottery.

Prehistory: The period of human history before the development of written records, relying on archaeological evidence to reconstruct the lives of ancient cultures.

Pressure flaking: A technique used in stone tool production, where controlled pressure is applied to the edges of a stone core to produce finely retouched flakes with sharp edges.

Processual Archaeology: Also known as the New Archaeology, this approach emphasizes scientific methodology and the study of cultural processes in human societies.

Projectile Point: A stone tool specifically designed for use as the tip of a projectile, such as an arrow or spear.

Provenance: The documented history of an artifact or archaeological find, including its original location, context, and ownership.

Provenience: The precise location or position within an archaeological site where an artifact or feature was originally found.

Pyramids: Archaeological sites consisting of monumental tombs found mostly in Ancient Egypt, and made famous by the Great Pyramid of Giza (c. 2589 BC), the Step Pyramid of Djoser (c.2670) and the Pyramid of Sahure (c.2475 BC).

Back to top


Quadrangle: Includes any 4-sided symbol. One of the basic paleolithic abstract signs found in caves.

Quarry: In archaeology, it refers to a site from which Indigenous people have extracted stone for making stone artifacts, ocher for painting, clay for pottery, or some other substance important to their practices.

Quarter sectioning: A sampling method used during excavation, dividing a site into quarters to facilitate systematic data collection.

Back to top


Radiocarbon Dating: A scientific method used to determine the age of organic materials, such as wood or bone, by measuring the amount of carbon-14 remaining in the sample.

Radioimmunoassay: A laboratory technique used for analyzing trace amounts of chemical substances, including those found in archaeological samples.

Radiometric Dating: A technique that uses the decay of radioactive isotopes to determine the absolute age of rocks and minerals, essential for dating geological and archaeological events.

Relative Dating: A method used to establish the chronological order of archaeological artifacts or layers based on their position in the stratigraphy, without assigning specific numerical ages.

Remote Sensing: The use of aerial or satellite imagery to detect and analyze surface features and archaeological sites, aiding in the identification of buried structures and landscapes.

Reniform: Kidney-shaped sign. One of the 32 geometric cave signs found in caves.

Rescue Archaeology: Also known as salvage archaeology, this refers to the urgent excavation of archaeological sites threatened by construction or development projects.

Rock Shelter: A natural or human-made cavity in a rock formation, typically with an overhang, used as a shelter by ancient human communities.

Back to top


Salvage Archaeology: Also known as rescue archaeology, is the study of archaeological sites that are at risk of destruction due to development or other activities.

Sampling Bias: The distortion of data collection in archaeology due to non-random or incomplete sampling of the archaeological record.

Scalariform: Ladder-shaped symbol. Like those at Bara-Bahau Cave, Le Bugue.

Scanning Electron Microscopes (SEM): Instruments used by archaeologists to examine and analyze minute surface details of artifacts and other archaeological materials.

Scraper: Stone tool commonly used to scrape hair from animal hides when making them into leather.

Secondary Deposit: A layer of material that has been moved from its original context and redeposited elsewhere, affecting the interpretation of archaeological findings.

Sediments: The accumulated layers of mineral and organic materials that form on the Earth's surface over time, preserving archaeological evidence within archaeological sites.

Segmented Cruciform: Cross without a centre. One of the basic paleolithic abstract signs found in caves.

Seriation: A relative dating technique used to arrange artifacts or sites in chronological order based on changes in their styles or frequencies over time. There are 2 types of seriation: frequency seriation and contextual seriation.

Serpentiform: Snake-like symbol. One of the 32 abstract cave signs found in caves.

Shaman: A religious or spiritual leader who, by entering a trance state, can communicate with supernatural beings to heal, bring rain, and determine the future. In some prehistoric societies shamans acted as intermediaries between the human and spirit worlds. Shamanic rituals are believed to be associated with Stone Age cave painting. See: Shamans in Paleolithic Art (from 30,000 BC).

Shell Midden: A shell midden is an archaeological deposit consisting primarily of discarded shells, often indicative of ancient human settlement and dietary practices.

Sherd: A fragment of pottery or ceramic material, often found at archaeological sites, used to study cultural patterns and dating.

Sieving: A method used in archaeology to separate small artifacts and ecofacts from excavated sediment.

Site: A specific location with archaeological remains where past human activity occurred, serving as a primary focus of archaeological investigation.

Slip: A thin coating of liquid clay applied to ceramics before firing, to enhance appearance and protect the vessel.

Soapstone: A type of soft metamorphic rock that was commonly used by ancient cultures for carving and sculpting.

Sociobiology: A scientific discipline that examines the biological basis of social behavior, including its application to human societies.

Sociocultural Anthropology: A branch of anthropology that studies the cultural and social patterns of human societies.

Sociolinguistics: The study of the relationship between language and society, including how language use varies across different social groups.

Soils: The natural layers or strata in the ground that hold archaeological artifacts and provide valuable contextual information.

Solutrean: An Upper Paleolithic stone tool culture in Europe, known for its distinctive flint knapping techniques and projectile points. It lasted from roughly 20,000 to 15,000 BC. The type-site is the Rock of Solutré in France, overlooking the village of Solutré-Pouilly.

Spanish Tectiform: Big rectangular tectiform. Used in 'The Inscription' at La Pasiega Cave.

Species: A subdivision of a genus. Members of a species resemble one another and interbreed. Homo sapiens is a species of the genus 'Homo'.

Speleology: The exploration and study of deep caves. The scientific study of caves and the cave environment.

Spelunker: A person who goes spelunking, that is, explores caves or is interested in caving. Without the help of spelunkers, some of the most important caves (like Chauvet Cave) would not have been discovered.

Spiral: Any spiral-shaped form. Like those found at Grande Grotte d'Arcy-sur-Cure, in the French Yonne.

Spoil: The excavated earth and debris removed during archaeological excavation.

Spoil Heap: A mound or pile of discarded soil and debris resulting from archaeological excavation.

Steatite: A soft, fine-grained stone used for carving various artifacts in archaeology.

Stele: A stone or wooden slab with inscriptions or carvings, often used to commemorate significant events or individuals. Famous examples include the Hammurabi Stele containing Hammurabi's Code, and the Rosetta Stone.

Step-trenching: A method of excavation used on very deep sites, such as Near Eastern tell sites, in which trenches are dug in a series of gradually narrowing steps to expose and document the stratigraphy of a site.

Sterile Soil: Soil layers devoid of any archaeological materials or artifacts.

Stillbay tool Industry: Middle Stone Age stone tool manufacturing style, named after the type-site of Stilbaai in South Africa. Stillbay people preheated their stone in human made fire to increase its workability when making stone tools. It is broadly analogous to the European Mousterian culture.

Stone Age: A prehistoric period from 3.3 million years BC to 10,000 BC, characterized by the predominant use of stone tools and weapons.

Stonehenge: Major archaeological site of megalithic architecture, in the form of aligned stone circles, and multiple burial sites.

Stone Tools: The diagnostic feature of the Stone Age and a key marker in human cognitive and creative development.

Stoneware: Halfway between porcelain and earthenware, impervious to liquids because of its fine clay and fired to a point where partial verification renders is impervious.

Stratigraphy: The study of layers of deposits, soils, or sediments in archaeological sites to determine their chronological sequence and relationships.

Stratum: A distinct layer of soil or sediment representing a specific period of deposition and used for chronological analysis in archaeology.

Stylus: An ancient writing tool, often made of bone or metal, used for inscribing clay tablets or other writing surfaces.

Sulawesi: A multi-pronged island in the Banda Sea, between Kalimantan and West Papua New Guinea, where archaeologists excavating Leang Tedongnge Cave on Sulawesi, found the world's earliest cave paintings, dating to 43,500 BC.

Superimposition: The usually intentional painting or engraving of a new image over an existing image. A good example is the series of superimposed engravings at Les Combarelles Cave.

Surface Scatter: Archaeological artifacts scattered on the ground surface rather than buried in the soil.

Surface Survey: A method in archaeology where the surface of an area is systematically examined for artifacts and features without excavation.

Back to top


Taphonomy: The study of processes that have affected organic materials, such as bone after death; it involves the microscopic analysis of tooth marks or cut marks to assess the effects of butchery or scavenging activities.

Tectiform: Roof-shaped sign. One of the 32 abstract cave signs found in caves.

Tell: An archaeological mound formed by the buildup of ancient settlements over time.

Temper: Material added to clay during pottery production to improve its workability and prevent cracking during firing. May include vegetable fibres, feathers, rock fragments, sand, or ground-up potsherds.

Temples: Ancient sites of deity worship. Among the oldest and greatest are the Ancient Egyptian temples at Thebes and elsewhere.

Terminus Ante Quem: The earliest possible date for an archaeological artifact or feature based on the latest datable context in which it is found.

Terminus Post Quem: The latest possible date for an archaeological artifact or feature based on the earliest datable context in which it is found.

Test Pit: A small, shallow excavation made to investigate the presence of archaeological remains in a specific area.

Thermoluminescence (TL): A chronometric dating method based on the fact that some materials, when heated, give off a flash of light. The intensity of the light is proportional to the amount of radiation the sample has been exposed to, and the length of time since the sample was heated. The method has much in common with electron spin resonance (ESR).

Three Age System: This divides prehistory into three stages of the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, according to the type of tools used. Devised by 19th century Danish archaeologist Christian Jürgensen Thomsen (1788-1865), it is still in use today, although the Stone Age has been further divided into Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, and Neolithic.

Tree Rings: The growth rings in the cross-section of a tree trunk, used for dating purposes in archaeology (dendrochronology).

Trench: A long and narrow excavation trench dug at an archaeological site to reveal stratigraphy and features.

Triangle: Regular geometric symbol. Like the ones at Bernifal Cave in the French Dordogne.

Trilithon: Two large upright stones supporting a third stone (lintel) across the top, like the trilithons at Stonehenge.

Tufa: A type of porous limestone often used in ancient construction and artifact production.

Tuff: Geological formation composed of compressed volcanic ash.

Tumulus: A mound or barrow containing burial sites, often associated with ancient graves.

Typology: The classification and study of artifacts based on shared characteristics to understand their cultural and chronological significance.

Back to top


Unciform: Hook-shaped sign. One of the basic paleolithic abstract signs found in caves.

Underwater Archaeology: The study and excavation of submerged archaeological sites and shipwrecks.

Uniface Tools: Tools with one worked surface, characteristic of certain prehistoric cultures.

Use-wear Analysis: The study of wear patterns on artifacts to understand their functions and use in the past.

Uniface: A stone tool with a single worked surface and an unmodified opposite surface.

Uniformitarianism: The theory that the stratification of rocks is due to processes that are still ongoing in seas, rivers, and lakes; i.e. that geologically ancient conditions were in essence similar to or “uniform with” those of our own time.

Uranium Series Dating: A radiometric dating method used to determine the age of calcium carbonate materials, particularly useful for dating cave deposits and calcite speleothems.

Urn: A vessel, typically made of clay, used to contain human ashes after cremation.

Urnfield: A burial site or cemetery containing multiple cremation urns, often associated with Bronze Age cultures.

Uranium-Thorium Dating: U/Th dating technology relies on the relative radioactive decay of uranium isotopes and their daughter thorium isotopes. It is able to date materials up to several hundred thousand years old.

Back to top


Varves: Layers of sediment deposited in bodies of water, particularly lakes, used for chronological dating.

Venus Figurines: Made of clay, stone, bone, antler, or ivory, these small figurines depicted obese female nudes in a very stylized form. Most were made durng the Gravettian culture.


Wandjina: A style of aboriginal cave painting exclusive to the Kimberley region of north-western Australia. The figures are thought to represent mythological beings associated with the creation of the world.

Ware: A specific type or style of pottery, often identified by its distinct characteristics.

Weathering: The natural process of material decay and erosion over time, affecting exposed archaeological artifacts and features.

Wet Sieving: A method of artifact recovery using water to wash sediment and separate smaller materials from larger ones during excavation.

W-sign: aka Chauvet-type signs. Like the one at the end of the frieze of the red rhinoceroses at Chauvet Cave.

Xianren Cave: Located in Jiangxi province, China, contained the world's oldest pottery. See Ancient Pottery Timeline.

Y-sign: Named after the letter. One of the 32 cave symbols found in paleolithic caves.


Zhoukoudian Cave System: Located in a suburb of Beijing, this cave system has yielded many archaeological discoveries, including one of the first specimens of Homo erectus in China, dubbed 'Peking Man'. Peking Man occupied this cave between about 750,000 and 200,000 BC.

Ziggurat: An ancient Mesopotamian stepped tower built from mudbrick with a shrine on top.

Zigzag: One of the basic paleolithic abstract symbols found in caves.

Zone: A specific area within an archaeological site where particular activities or features are concentrated.

Zoomorphic: "Animal-like". refers to art-work or decorated objects with an animal motif or appearance.

Zooarchaeology: The study of animal remains recovered from archaeological sites to understand past human-animal interactions, diet, and environment.

Zoomorph: A term used in prehistoric art to describe an image with animal attributes. Like the 'Sorcerer' in Les Trois Frères Cave.

NEXT: The World's Oldest Art (from 540,000 BC).

Back to top