The Hierarchy of Archaeological Entities

Anthropology 3
Exercise 2-1
George H. Michaels and Brian M. Fagan
© The Regents of the University of California -- 1989-96

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The Hierarchy of Archaeological Entities

This assignment is designed to acquaint you with the hierarchy of entities that archaeology deals with. Although we generally think of sites, fabulous artifacts, and lost civilizations when we think about archaeology, there are many more facets of the human experience that archaeologists deal with. Some of them are quite spectacular, but many are the mundane minutia of daily life -- in this or any other century. They are all very important in decoding the lifeways of earlier peoples.

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Attributes are the smallest unit of analysis in archaeology. An attribute is a well defined characteristic of an artifact that cannot be further subdivided.

Normally attributes are studied statistically to determine clusters of attributes, including form, style, use and technology of manufacture, in order to classify and interpret artifacts. Attributes can include such things as raw material, color, size, weight, major dimensions, etc.

Obviously, attributes will be different for different classes of artifacts. In some cases, only certain attributes are analyzed, selection being based on the problem at hand.

In the following short exercise, you will be asked to identify the attributes of an artifact class that you are probably quite familiar with. Just point to the appropriate attribute area or name as the various attribute types flash on the screen. As you will see, much of this is common sense. Please take a moment or two after you have successfully identified all of the attributes to click on each one to see what kinds of information archaeologists can extract from these data.

[Run Simulation]
Run Attribute Exercise

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An artifact is any object manufactured or modified by human beings. Artifacts can be as simple as a single stone flake or as complex as the computer you are using. Although attributes are the minimal unit of analysis for artifacts, artifacts are, in practice, the minimal unit of analysis for most types of archaeological research.

Some artifacts, such as this portion of Sumerian tablet recording the exploits of the hero Gilgamesh, or the inner coffin of Tutankhamun's Tomb, are significant as individual objects. That is because they either contain important information, like the former, or are exquisite examples of the craftsman's art, as is the latter. Most artifacts don't have singular significance. The information that artifacts convey comes either from comparison with other, similar objects, or from their association with other artifacts.

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A feature is an artifact such as a house or a hearth, which cannot be removed from a site; normally, these are recorded only. In another sense, a feature is an artifact that cannot be collected because the process of collecting it would destroy it. Normal recording procedures for features include plan drawings, photographs, profile drawings, and often the collection of various kinds of samples such as soil, pollen, and archaeomagnetic dating samples.

Just as artifacts have attributes, so do features. In most cases features have the same kinds of metric and material attributes as artifacts, but they often have more complex attributes as well. For example, the number, and types of artifacts associated with a feature is an attribute of the feature. In this way we can categorize features, like burials, not only on the basis of the dimensions and style of the grave, or the attributes of the persons buried in them, but also by the kinds of grave goods that were buried with the people.

An important type of feature found in many archaeological contexts is the hearth, or fireplace. Materials collected from hearths can help us date sites, can tell us about the sex of the people using the hearth, the time of the year that the site was occupied, what the people ate, and what some of the principal activities were at the site.

Now you will get a chance to do some detective work in decoding a feature.

Beach Artifacts

This is a collection of artifacts picked up on a recent survey within Santa Barbara County. By themselves, how much real information do they convey?

Read the attribute information for each artifact.

Welcome to Coal Oil Point!

As the previous page pointed out, artifacts by themselves, without any contextual information, can be fairly uninformative. Here are those same artifacts, in the context within which they were recovered. This is a feature, in this case a hearth. Take a few moments to look over the feature and become familiar with it.

You may click on any of the elements of the feature to get information about those elements. That will jump you to a set of explanations of the artifacts. IMPORTANT : To return from the artifact description page use the " Back " button at the top of the Browser window. When in doubt use the " Back " button to get back to this page.

Take a few moments to think about how much more information the context of the feature gives you.

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An assemblage is all of the artifacts found at a site, including the sum of all of the subassemblages at the site. Subassemblages are all of the artifacts of a particular kind or class found at a site. In the case of the feature that you just finished interpreting, all of the artifacts that were associated with that feature are part of the site assemblage. The cans belong to the subassemblage of metal containers.

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The Industry at a site includes all of the particular artifacts (bone, shell, stone, etc.) found at the site and made at the same time by the same population. In the case of our beach deposit, we could characterize the latter part of the 20th Century as the period of the Extruded Aluminum Beer Can Industry, since they are so prevalent in this deposit. Look at the other objects above to see what other industries occurred on this beach during earlier times before you continue.

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A component is an association of all of the artifacts from one occupation level at a site. Sites having evidence for only one occupation are called single component sites. More stratigraphically complex sites are called multicomponent sites.

Components are often identified by the presence of particular industries, the association of particular artifact types, or by horizon markers. Horizon markers are artifact types that show enough stylistic change through time that they can be used to mark the horizon, or beginning of a new time period. The example of the different kinds of beer cans from the previous card is a good example of how horizon markers can be used to detect different occupations of a site from different time periods. The industries mentioned could then be used to define the various components of the Coal Oil Point Site.

Component Exercise

You are back at the Coal Oil Point Site. In this case, the site really only consists of the one feature you have already described. This time, however, you will excavate the site to see what lies underneath the surface deposit.

You should look for changes in the artifact assemblages that make up the two components of the site. In this way you can become fanmiliar with the ways in which archaeologists use differing assemblages between the components of sites to determine changes in culture or occupation over time.

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A site is any place where objects, features, or ecofacts, manufactured or modified by human beings are found. A site can range in size from a city to a hunting blind, and it can be defined in functional and other ways. We have already attached functional definitions to the two components of the Coal Oil Point Site - a beach party site, and a recreational fishing site. Sites can be single or multicomponent, and can have many features or none.

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Extent of the Tecate Extruded Aluminum Beer Can Complex circa late 20th century

In archaeology, a complex is a chronological subdivision of different artifact types such as stone tools, pottery, and the like. Complexes are often defined on the basis of the similarities of industries between different sites within a region dating from roughly the same time period. Thus, for our extruded aluminum beer cans, we could define a T.E.A.B.C. Complex that covers the entire region where we find these types of cans, with "Tecate" printed on them.

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World Systems

A world system is essentially that integrated complex of all human and environmental systems within the sphere of knowledge of any of the members of the system. As technology and communications have progressed through the course of human history, the number of individual world systems has diminished, coalescing into the global world system that all of us are a part of today.

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The Hierarchy of Archaeological Entities

You have now been introduced to the hierarchy of entities with which archaeologists work in the process of decoding human prehistory. These various entities or terms are heuristic devices that help in organizing information in a way that facilitates thinking about how archaeological remains relate to past human behavior. The graphic below is a schematic model of the ways in which these various pieces fit together, working from the minuscule (attributes) to the grand (world systems) as sets of ever increasing inclusiveness. This system for organizing archaeological information exists within the larger system of local and global Environment and both systems are affected by the passage of Time. The environment is the larger system within which the archaeological hierarchy is a subsystem. Time structures the flow, the occurrence and disappearance, of all of the elements of the hierarchy. Take a moment to study the graphic. You may click on any of the terms for a short definition.

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You have now completed this assignment. We hope that you found it enjoyable and informative. Now return to your Study Guide and follow the instructions found there.

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Department of Anthropology, UCSB

Brian M. Fagan and George H. Michaels
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