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Archaeology Glossary

Here's a list of key terms used in archaeology. If a heading is underlined, this means you can click the link for more information or it may take you to relevant pages on the website. 

If you've come across a term that you don't understand, then email in and we can explain it here for you!

A context is thought of as an action – something which has occurred and left an effect on the stratigraphy. The contexts make up the stratigraphy of a site / trench. Click on the heading for more detail of how to spot a context and understand what it is.

Cut and Fill

It has been explained that contexts describe an action that has an effect on the stratigraphic record. A cut is referred to as a negative feature, because you can only see the aftermath of the action – i.e a cut has removed material. There are many different reasons for a cut – it may be for a ditch, or a post hole, or someone later has come to rob building materials and has cut into the already formed stratigraphy. To spot a cut, an archaeologist has to study the context that has been cut into and the context that fills the cut. The fill of the cut is a separate context. The cut may have been filled immediately after the action of the cut, or many years later. A cut may be filled deliberately, or have a natural accumulation of material within it. 


An excavation is the uncovering of what’s beneath the ground, and recording it. An important thing to remember is that excavation is the first and last record of what is there, so it is important to record each layer of stratigraphy thoroughly, before it is removed. Excavations can last from days to years, and can done as part of academic research or the commercial / developmental process. Many of the tools and techniques archaeologists use when excavating can be found under the ‘What is Archaeology’ tab.  

Harris Matrix

When archaeologists are considering the dating and succession of the stratigraphic layers, they will create a Harris Matrix to show where each context sits in relation to one another. Think of it as a diagram that has the latest layer at the top, the earliest layer at the bottom, and all the other actions of cuts, fills and depositions in between. It was developed by Dr Edward C Harris, who also developed the laws of archaeological stratigraphy. Click on the stratigraphy heading for an example of a Harris Matrix.


This term refers to the work that is carried out post (or after) excavation. Once artefacts and samples have been lifted from an excavation, the material has to be analysed. This is usually done in a lab, where specialists can study the different artefacts and materials. The information that they find out can help to date the site, and helps with the interpretation of the site. Some of the different roles in post-ex will be explored in the coming weeks.


When digging, if an archaeologist is creating an artificial edge (like the edges of a trench or a section through a feature) then the edges have to be vertical – as straight as possible. This edge is called the profile. The archaeologist can then study the profile to understand the stratigraphy. The profile provides a picture of what is happening with the soil at that spot. Part of the recording process is then drawing and photographing this profile. 


A section gives archaeologists a view of what is happening in the stratigraphy at a certain point, in this way it is similar to a profile. A common method of excavation (especially in commercial archaeology) is to half-section a feature. This means that the archaeologist cuts the feature in half. The remaining artificial edge is the section. This section is then photographed and drawn. 

This refers to the layers that archaeologists excavate. Archaeologists will consider the stratigraphic contexts as they dig. Each new stratigraphic layer is assigned a new context – read more about this under the context heading. To understand the stratigraphy in more detail, click the heading for an article. 


When excavating, it's very important to use the right tools. Some field schools may provide trowels, but most archaeologists will have their own set of tools, starting off with the trowel. Many archaeologists will become very attached to their trowel (even naming them), and will take them on excavations across the world. The most popular brand in the UK for trowels is WHS 4", while American archaeologists tend to prefer Marshalltown. Find out about what tools field archaeologists use by clicking the Trowel heading!

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