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Archaeological Sites: Cultural and Natural Formation Processes

Dirt marked with several white labels
In the last post, I wrote about archaeological sites. Now, I’d like to talk about the formation of archaeological sites through cultural and natural processes.
As I wrote in the last post, an archaeological site is a place where traces of human activity can be found. Sites can be huge, like ancient cities, or very small, such as a scattering of a few stone tools. And, sites can be used for a short period of time, like just a few hours, or for long periods of time, like multiple generations. In addition, there are different kinds of sites, such as burial sites and habitation sites.
a green field of grass with stone ruins

Site Formation

Site formation is what you call the process of forming archaeological sites. Here’s what Robert Kelly and David Thomas have to say about the formation of archaeological sites in their textbook, “Archaeology.” (7th edition, page 85):
“Every archaeological site is unique. Some sites are remarkably well preserved; others are not. Some sites lie on the surface, some are deeply buried, and others lie underwater. Some are frozen; others are dry…But they all had one thing in common: dirt.”
archaeological sites formation processes. image of a hand holding dirt, with dirt in the background
Because sites are found in the dirt, the study of archaeology also includes some geology. This is known as geoarchaeology, which is the application of geological concepts to archaeology.
Archaeological sites are formed by a combination of human actions and natural processes. Humans create or modify things, creating artifacts and features. Much of this evidence of human activity disintegrates over time and also can be buried by dirt through natural processes.
archaeological sites formation processes. image of a hand holding a black obsidian projectile point

Cultural Formation Processes

Let’s talk more about the human actions that create archaeological sites, which are known as cultural formation processes. There are four main human activities involved:
  1. acquisition of raw material
  2. manufacture
  3. use and distribution
  4. disposal or discard
For example, consider the creation of stone tools. First, the person must acquire the raw material needed to make the stone tool. Second, the person manufactures the tool. Third, the tool is used and distributed. And lastly, the tool is discarded.
stalks of golden wheat against a clear blue sky
As another example, let’s consider a food crop—wheat. First, the person acquires the wheat through harvesting. Second, the wheat is manufactured or processed. Third, the wheat is used—it is eaten. And lastly, the wheat is discarded—it is digested and waste is produced.
There are also four ways that affect how artifacts enter the archaeological record. First, items may be discarded, either because they break or wear out. Second, sometimes items are lost or left behind accidentally. Third, some items may be cached. This means they are buried in the ground so no one can find them, and the person plans to return later to get the items (but they may not end up returning). And fourth, there is something called ritual internment. This is when people leave items behind because they are part of a ritual, like a burial or offering in a shrine.
There are also other kinds of human actions that affect sites, such as reclamation, looting, cultural disturbance processes, and reuse processes.
someone's hands laying light red bricks
Artifacts can be reclaimed, meaning later people find them and use them. For example, a person may find an old projectile point and resharpen it. Or, someone may use an old brick when building a fireplace.
Looting is the removal of artifacts from sites by people who are not professional archaeologists. This includes amateur archaeologists.
a man plowing a field with a cow
Cultural disturbance processes are when people disrupt the contexts of an archaeological site. For example, people may farm a plot of land, and the plowing disturbs the site.
Reuse processes are when people re-use items or recycle them. For example, broken arrowheads may be remade into other tools, like scrapers. Reuse and reclamation may seem similar, so here’s how you tell the difference. If a wooden beam is removed from a structure that is occupied, then it is reuse. But if the wood is taken from an abandoned structure, then it is reclamation.
cross sections of several branches of wood

Natural Formation Processes

Now, let’s look at natural formation processes. This is how nature affects the survival of archaeological evidence. First of all, there are two kinds of materials—organic and inorganic. Organic materials are carbon-based compounds, derived from living organisms. Examples are bone and wood. Inorganic materials do not contain carbon, and they are not derived from living things. Examples would be stone and metal.
Usually, inorganic materials can survive natural processes better than organic materials. For example, stone tools can survive long periods of time—some are more than 2 million years old! But things like wooden tools and baskets usually don’t survive very long.
There are several types of natural formation processes. These include floralturbation, faunalturbation, cryoturbation, argilliturbation, and graviturbation.
archaeological site formation processes. image of a tree with long winding roots
Floralturbation is when the roots of trees disrupt sites. Artifacts can be moved up or down in the soil by this process. Faunalturbation is when rodents (and other animals) disrupt sites. When rodents burrow, they push artifacts upwards or downwards. Cryoturbation is when the soil in northern climates freezes and thaws, and as a result, artifacts are moved around. Argillturbation is when clay soils go through wet and dry cycles, which causes alternating expansion and cracking, which moves artifacts. Graviturbation is when artifacts on hillsides slide downwards, due to processes like rain and gravity.
archaeological sites formation processes. image of dry brown cracked soil

Learn More

I hope you enjoyed learning about the cultural and natural processes that affect the formation of archaeological sites. Want to learn more? Check out this article, “Site Formation Processes in Archaeology” at Thoughtco.com.
Thanks for reading!