Dirt. Archaeologists primarily find dirt, dirt, and more dirt. Many people engaging in archaeology for the first time are surprised at how much dirt we move over the course of an excavation, and rightfully so. They are also often surprised at how infrequently we find anything exciting. It certainly happens, and somewhat regularly, but it’s not necessarily a daily thing.
But archaeologists do find quite a bit, and they talk a lot about what they’ve found. So what is it that we look for in archaeology, and how do we categorize our finds?
Artifacts are objects that were used, made, or modified by people. These are what most people think of when they think archaeology, and rightfully so. Much of the material archaeologists study and excavate falls under the category of artifact. Most archaeologists will specialize in a specific material used to make artifacts, such as glass, ceramics, metals, or shells. They may also specialize in specific kinds of artifacts, such as beads, goblets, armor, or pots. My specialty is in ancient glass.
Ecofacts are environmental remains that have not been “made” by humans. I put ‘made’ in quotes here because domesticated plants (e.g. corn) count as ecofacts even though they are technically bred (i.e. ‘made’) by humans. Shells are tricky, too, and can fit into either the ecofact or artifact category. The main difference between artifacts and ecofacts is that ecofacts are environmental remains that have been minimally altered by humans or not altered at all. A grass cape is an artifact, but the pollen you swallow on a warm spring day is an ecofact. Corn stalks that have been worked into a sort of headdress are artifacts, but corn sitting in a jar for eating is an ecofact.
Features are man-made structures that cannot be transported easily. The Pyramids at Giza, the Great Wall of China, and Stonehenge are all features. Houses, walls, and wells are also features. But a feature does not always need to be something that is built up; it can be other non-movable evidence of human activity. Roads are as much features as the pyramids, as are floors, hearths, and pits. The Nazca Lines are also good examples of features. Features are generally separated into simple features and complex features. Postholes, pits, and hearths are good examples of simple features and houses, palaces, or aquaducts are good examples of complex features.
Sites are places where we find significant evidence of human activity, be it through artifacts, ecofacts, features, or some combination of the three. These can be a village, a specific area of a city, or a quarry site up in the hills. Sites may be very large (e.g. the Taj Mahal) or they may be small, isolated finds (e.g. my quarry site in Scotland). They may have been occupied for thousands of years (e.g. the Giza plateau) or only a few hours (e.g. a campsite used by a hunting party).
You may also hear archaeologists talking about regions, which are clusters of sites within a geographical area. Regions can be smaller or larger depending on the questions you’re asking as an archaeologist. Depending on the scale of study, I either described myself as working on the island of Java, within the country of Indonesia, within Southeast Asia, or looking at interregional trade between South, East, and Southeast Asia. All of those are acceptable descriptions of a region.
You may find the specific definitions of artifact and ecofact vary a little depending on the excavation, but these are the general definitions archaeologists use when speaking of their finds.