Glossary of Archaeological/Anthropological Terms


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DARK AGES __ A period of chaos, destruction, and rebuilding that lasted from the fall of Rome in 476 C.E. to the emergence of stable Germanic kingdoms in the ninth century. Specifically, the Dark Ages are often said to have ended in 800 C.E., when Charlemagne was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor. 

DARIUS __ Persian king Darius III was defeated by Alexander the Great. Darius was killed by his own men.

DART __ A (usually) large, arrow-like projectile propelled by either an atlatl or a blowgun.

DATA __ Information; the known facts; a series of measurements or observations.

DATING __ The process of determining the antiquity of an object or event. absolute dating. the determination of the age of an object relative to the present (eg. l000 years ago or 43 B.C.). relative dating. the determination of the age of an object relative to others of unknown age (eg. B is older than A but younger than C). Relative dating can thus be used to establish a chronology or sequence whereas absolute dating is required to anchor the events firmly in time.

DATUM POINT __ usually an arbitrarily-defined spot on or near an archaeological site which is used as a point of reference for the mapping of the site and for the plotting of the distribution of the artifacts which are recovered from it. 

DAUB __ Clay used to fill in the holes and gaps between the wood or thatching of a wall. It was used by both Indians and European settlers in North America to construct houses.

DEAD SEA SCROLLS __ A collection of more than 800 manuscripts written on parchment, papyrus, and copper over 2,000 years ago. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947 in what is now Israel. The Scrolls contain many different kinds of texts, including the oldest known portions of the Old Testament of the Bible.

DEBITAGE __ By-products or waste materials left over from the manufacture of stone tools.

DECANS __ The (Greek) name given to the period of time (10 days) during which the Egyptians observed that certain constellations were visible on the horizon. There were 36 decans in the Egyptian year of 360 days, and tables were drawn up recording them so that the Egyptians were able to tell the time at night: a given constellation would be at a particular point in the sky depending on what hour it was.

DECIPHER __ Cracking the code; figuring out something's meaning, especially an ancient language (for example, Egyptian hieroglyphics).

DEDUCTION __ A process of reasoning by which more specific consequences are inferred by rigorous argument from more general propositions.

DEEP SEA CORES __ Cores drilled from the sea bed that provide the most coherent record of climate changes on a worldwide scale. The cores contain shells of microscopic marine organisms (foraminifera) laid down on the ocean floor through the continuous process of sedimentation. Variations in the ratio of two oxygen isotopes in the calcium carbonate of these shells give a sensitive indicator of sea temperature at the time the organisms were alive.

DE-FACTO-REFUSE __ Artifacts - often still useable - left behind when an activity area, dwelling, or settlement is abandoned.
DEFLATION __ The removal of surficial deposits of soil, sand or fine gravel by wind action. Blowouts are formed as a result of deflation.

DEFLESHER __ A chisel-shaped, often toothed implement of bone, stone or metal used to remove the fat and flesh from the inner surface of a freshly skinned hide.

DEGRADATION __ The wearing away or weathering of a surface by erosion.

DELPHI __ Greek sanctuary of the god Apollo.

DELTA __ A triangular-shaped body of land formed of alluvium at the mouth of a river.

DEME __ The local breeding population; the smallest reproductive population. 

DEMOGRAPHIC TRANSITION __ A rapid increase in a society's population with the onset of industrialization, followed by a leveling off of the growth rate due to reduced fertility.

DEMOGRAPHY __ The study of population statistics (population size, number of births and deaths, causes of death, diseases, age distribution, etc.), particularly as a means of making statements of living conditions.

DEMOTIC __ Script used on Egyptian business documents (and whatever) from about 70 BCE. onwards. By the Graco-Roman period it had become the ordinary writing of everyday life. Word derives from Greek demoticos meaning popular.

DENDROCHRONOLOGY __ The scientific study of the annular growth of trees. Trees produce rings of various thickness annually in response to rainfall. Tree-rings therefore, can be used to reconstruct fluctuations in rainfall in the past, reflecting past climatic conditions.

DENTATE __ A form of pottery decoration produced by impressing a toothed object of (usually) bone, wood or stone into the wet clay thus creating rows of small, square depressions.
DEPOSITION (cultural) __ The laying down of deposits by human activities that move artifacts from systemic context to archaeological contest. 

DEPOSITION (environmental) __ The laying down of sediments by environmental agents such as wind and water.

DEPOSITIONAL ENVIRONMENT __ The surroundings of artifacts in archaeological context.

DEPOSITIONAL HISTORY __ The order in which strata were laid down.

DEPOSITIONAL STRATUM __ A separable layer of material at a site.

DESERT ARCHAIC TRADITION __ A seminomadic, hunting and gathering way of life that people in the Southwest adopted around 7000 B.C. The tradition is also known in Arizona as the Cochise, Amargosan, or Desert culture. The Desert Archaic lifeway was widespread, extending into the Great Basin of Utah and Nevada and the Mohave Desert of California. Although the Archaic lifeway gradually disappeared in southern Arizona as the Hohokam culture developed, the tradition was practiced into historic times by people such as the Great Basin Paiute.

DESHRET __ The red crown. This was the crown that represented Lower Egypt (northern).

DESTRUCTIVE ARCHAEOLOGY __ Most methods used in archaeological research are destructive. We destroy what we are studying. Thus it’s important to –
A: Excavate just as much as necessary. A stable site may be better to leave untouched to coming generations. They will be happy, and perhaps also possess much finer investigation methods.
B: Document the investigation as thorough as possible. Future analysis may need just those tiny details that may seem insignificant today.
This is described in Archaeology from the Earth by Sir Mortimer Wheeler (Penguin 1954).

DEVELOPMENTAL CYCLE __ The stages passed through by individuals, behavioral components, artifacts, and artifact types.

DEVIL'S CLAW __ Also called the unicorn plant. A coarse, low-growing annual with large, shallowly lobed leaves. All parts of the plant are covered with coarse, sticky hairs. The seedpods turn black at maturity and each is characterized by a long, slightly curved extension of its tip. The plants grows at elevations of 1000 to 5000 feet and ranges from western Texas to southern Nevada.

DIADEM __ Band worn on the head signifying royal power.

DIAGNOSTIC ARTIFACT __ An item that is indicative of a particular time period and/or cultural group.

DIE __ Engraved stamp used to impress a design in softer material.

DIFFUSION __ The spread of cultural traits from one culture to another. direct diffusion. the spread of cultural traits by means of multiple hand-to-hand transmissions of adjacent groups rather than a migration of the original trait bearers. stimulus diffusion. the spread of the general idea of a culture trait which may subsequently manifest itself in the creation of the physical object or development of the custom by the recipient group.

DIGS __ Archaeological sites with on-going excavations.

DING (Chinese) __ Tripod food vessel

DIONYSOS __ Greek god of wine. Known as Bacchus by the Romans.

DIP NET __ A fish net attached to a (usually) circular frame and often equipped with a handle.

DISTURBANCE __ Movement and damage of artifacts in archaeological context as the by-product of other activities.

DIVING BELL __ Diving bells are described in Italy already in the 1530s. In the 17th century divers worked in very large bells. In the top was an air pocket, and below was free workspace towards the wreck. A step toward the earliest beginnings of marine archaeology.

DJED COLUMN __ Pillar symbol meaning "stability." Thought to represent the backbone of Osiris.

DNA __ The abbreviation for a chemical called deoxyribonucleic acid, which is in every cell of your body. DNA acts like your blueprint since it holds the instructions for all your body's activities.

DOMESTICATED PLANT __ A plant whose genetic characteristics are altered from their natural state by human propagation efforts.
DORSET __ A Middle Prehistoric Period archaeological culture or tradition, the remains of which have been found in the eastern Canadian arctic and on the Atlantic coast as far south as Nova Scotia. In many ways, the Dorset seems to represent an elaboration of earlier Pre-Dorset adaptations to the arctic environment. Particularly distinctive Dorset artifacts include antler, bone or ivory harpoon heads, three-dimensional ivory and bone carvings of humans and animals, and the increase in the use of grinding as opposed to chipping as a means of manufacturing projectile points and knives. These people pursued a seasonal round which involved the taking of sea mammals in the spring, fishing and caribou hunting inland during the latter part of the summer and fall, and a winter occupation on the sea ice subsisting largely on seals. Dorset culture appears to have disappeared rather suddenly and mysteriously about l000 years ago with the expansion of the Thule people from Alaska.

DOUGLAS FIR __ A tall evergreen found at elevations of 6500 to 10,000 feet. Used by the Hohokam for timber, this tree can be found in the higher mountain ranges in Arizona and Nevada and at lower elevations in more northern regions.

DRACHMA __ Coin that was the currency of Athens.

DRAGGED STAMP __ A kind of pottery decoration found on some Laurel vessels produced by dragging a toothed (dentating) instrument across the wet clay, often in a zigzag fashion. The dragged stamp method is also known as push-pull.

DRAWKNIFE __ A woodworking tool consisting of a blade with perpendicularly-oriented handles at either end. This implement is also sometimes known as a spokeshave.

DRIFT __ Material carried by glaciers.
DRIFT COPPER __ pieces of native copper which have been transported from their natural place of origin by glaciers. Drift copper may be found on the ground surface and undoubtedly was used by prehistoric peoples for the manufacturing of ornaments and tools.

DRILL __ A stone bit attached to a shaft and used to perforate dense materials.

DRY FARMING __ Method where rainfall runoff is diverted or trapped to provide water for crops. Dry-farming systems include terraces, check dams, and small ditches.

DUAT __ The Egyptian land of the dead. It Lies under the earth and is entered through the western horizon.

DUNCAN __ A stemmed projectile point style of the Middle Prehistoric Period in the Northern Plains. Duncan points are included within the McKean Complex (Wheeler l954).

DYNASTY __ A family that retains political power over several generations.



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