While historians use written records, such as diaries, journals, and account books, to reconstruct the past, prehistoric archaeologists rely primarily on material remains. Examples of such remains include pottery fragments, house foundations, and bones from butchered animals. The methodological challenge facing all archaeologists is to determine how these material remains can be used to reconstruct past ways of life and the ways in which prehistoric societies changed through time. Material remains include three types of data—artifacts, features, and "ecofacts."


Artifacts are portable objects that are either made or modified by humans. In prehistoric European sites, some of the most common types of artifacts are stone tools, pottery, and metal objects.

Stone tools are most often found on Mesolithic and Neolithic sites, although they continued to be made throughout much of the Bronze Age in some parts of northern Europe. Chipped-stone tools are made of amorphous materials—those that lack obvious planes of cleavage. In Europe, chipped-stone tools are most often made of obsidian, a volcanic glass that was widely traded throughout the Mediterranean, and flint.

The simplest way to produce a stone tool is to strike a block, or core, of stone with a hammer stone, a technique known as direct percussion. The resulting flake has a sharp edge and can be used for a variety of cutting and slicing tasks. Longer, narrower flakes, known as blades, can be produced by placing a punch made of bone, antler, or wood between the hammerstone and the core. Microliths, which are commonly found on many European Mesolithic sites, can be produced by snapping a flint blade into many small, geometric pieces. These microliths are commonly used as barbs on arrowheads. A different method of stone tool manufacture, grinding or polishing, became prevalent during the Neolithic period. While modern archaeologists view the Neolithic as the period when farming spread across Europe for the first time, the original meaning of the term "Neolithic" is "new stone age," the period when ground and polished stone tools first appeared. Polished stone axes and adzes (a tool with the blade set perpendicular to the handle) can be used for woodworking and for forest clearance.

A second major class of artifacts is pottery. While some pottery was produced at Mesolithic sites in northern and eastern Europe, it became widespread during the Neolithic period. Pottery is made of clay, a plastic material (meaning it can be molded or modeled) that can be manipulated into a wide range of forms, including cooking pots, pitchers, cups, storage jars, and even sculpture and other art objects.

Pottery vessels can be formed in a variety of different ways. They can be molded by hand, an example of which is the coiling technique, where coils of clay are used to create the general outline of the vessel and then are smoothed to form its final shape. During the Roman era and the Early Middle Ages, some pottery was also made using a potter’s wheel. For example, Ipswich ware was produced in Ipswich, England, between the seventh and ninth centuries a.d. using a slow wheel.

During pottery production, the clay is combined with a nonplastic material known as temper to minimize cracking and shrinkage during firing. A variety of different materials were used as temper in prehistoric Europe, including shell and chaff. Pottery vessels can then be fired in either a bonfire or a kiln. During firing, the clay undergoes an irreversible chemical change, producing a material that is both durable and watertight. Pottery vessels can be decorated in a variety of ways, including painting and burnishing (polishing)—usually with a smooth stone. Since pottery fragments are durable and the techniques of manufacture and decoration vary according to both time and space, pottery is especially useful for defining and recognizing different archaeological cultures (see below). For example, the Linearbandkeramik (LBK) or Linear Pottery culture, which is associated with the first farmers of central Europe, is usually recognized by its distinctive pottery with incised curvilinear decorations.

Metal objects are the third principal class of artifacts found in European archaeological sites. Objects made of copper, silver, and gold are often found on later Neolithic sites in Europe. For example, Otzi, the famous "Iceman" discovered on the border between Austria and Italy in the early 1990s, was carrying a copper axe when he died. Metal objects became far more common during the subsequent Bronze and Iron Ages. During the late third millennium b.c., the use of bronze (typically an alloy of 10 percent tin and 90 percent copper) became increasingly widespread. During the first millennium b.c., iron gradually replaced bronze for tools and weapons. By the end of the first millennium b.c., iron was produced on a very large scale in many parts of central Europe, and everyday items, such as agricultural tools, were commonly made of iron. Coins, made of a variety of metals and alloys, also become common in the later Iron Age and the Early Middle Ages.

Many other artifacts from prehistoric Europe were made of organic materials, such as bone, antler, wood, linen, and wool. Bone and antler working is well documented from the Early Mesolithic onward at sites such as Star Carr in England. Bone continued to be widely used in Europe until the early twentieth century, when it was finally replaced by plastics. Bone and antler survive quite well in nonacidic soils, and worked bone and antler tools, such as points and combs, are known from many prehistoric and early medieval sites in Europe.

Other organic materials, such as wood, decay rapidly and survive only under special circumstances, such as waterlogging. Waterlogging produces an anaerobic environment that inhibits the action of bacteria and other microorganisms that typically destroy organic materials. Wooden canoe paddles have been recovered from the submerged Mesolithic site of Tybrind Vig in Denmark, and small wooden boats have been recovered from a variety of waterlogged sites that date from the Meso-lithic period through the Early Middle Ages. In addition, small fragments of textiles sometimes survive when they are in direct contact with metal objects. For example, the textile remains that have been recovered from the Viking period trading colony of Birka in Sweden have shed light on the nature of clothing and textile manufacture in northern Europe during the Early Middle Ages.


Features can be thought of as nonportable artifacts. They are structures that cannot be moved about but that were constructed or modified by prehistoric people. Typical examples of archaeological features include pits, ditches, middens (trash heaps), house foundations, fortifications, hearths, and field boundaries. Some archaeological features are more visible than others. For example, the small huts at the Early Mesolithic site of Mount Sandel in Northern Ireland are marked by a circular series of small stake holes set at an angle. No traces of these small stake holes were visible on the surface of the site prior to excavation. On the other hand, large earthworks, such as the series of earthen banks and ditches that surround the Iron Age hillfort of Maiden Castle in southwestern England, are a visible part of the landscape. Buried archaeological features can sometimes be identified using aerial photography, a technique that was first used by archaeologists after World War I. Small irregular earthen features, such as traces of ancient plowing, cast small shadows that are visible from the air early in the morning and late in the evening. Cereal crops and grass growing over excavated features, such as pits and ditches dug into the subsoil, appear greener than the surrounding vegetation during periods of drought. While these crop marks are best seen from the air, they are also visible on the ground and were first recognized by the British antiquary William Camden in the sixteenth century.

Graves are a particularly important class of features. Many human graves include grave goods— items that were placed into the grave to accompany the dead. Grave goods can include clothing, dress fasteners, jewelry, and ceramic and metal vessels that may hold food or drink, tools, weapons, and occasionally animal or human sacrifices. In some burials, bodies were placed directly into the ground, while others employed coffins or more elaborate funeral chambers. Graves are of particular interest to archaeologists since all the items within a single grave were buried at the same time. Some of the best-known examples of graves from late prehistoric and early medieval Europe include the Late Hallstatt (c. 600-480 b.c.) "princes’ graves" from west-central Europe and the Early Anglo-Saxon (seventh century a.d.) boat burials from Sutton Hoo in eastern England.

Cremation entails burning the body as part of the funerary rite. The remains of the cremation, including ash, bone fragments, and the remains of burnt grave goods, are sometimes placed in ceramic urns and then buried. The Urnfield burials of Late Bronze Age central Europe are among the most renowned examples of cremation burials in European archaeology.


Some archaeologists use the term "ecofacts" to describe a third class of material remains that are commonly recovered from archaeological excavations. Ecofacts are not necessarily made or modified by humans, but they do provide information on prehistoric environments and the ways they were used by early peoples. Common types of ecofacts include animal bones (sometimes termed "faunal remains"), seeds and other plant remains, and plant pollen.

Animal bones are recovered in large numbers from many prehistoric and early medieval sites in Europe. For example, over 2 tons of animal bones were recovered from the Early Anglo-Saxon (c. 420-650 a.d.) village of West Stow in eastern England. Experienced zooarchaeologists (archaeologists who study faunal remains) can use the bones to identify the species and the part of the skeleton from which these animal bones come. In some cases, the sex and the age of the animal can also be determined. Faunal remains can be used to reconstruct hunting patterns, animal husbandry practices, and diet.

Plant remains are also important in the study of past farming practices and diet. Most studies of ar-chaeologically recovered plant remains have focused on seeds, most of which survived to modern times because they were charred or waterlogged. In addition, impressions of seeds are sometimes preserved in pottery vessels and other fired-clay objects. Studies of Neolithic seed remains indicate that emmer wheat was the most common crop grown at early farming sites in central Europe. Studies of other plant remains, such as tubers, are still in their infancy. However, pioneering studies of the fleshy parts of plants have shown that tubers, such as wild beets, were collected by the Mesolithic inhabitants of the Netherlands.

Prehistoric pollen grains are commonly recovered from lake beds and archaeological sites. Pollen, along with other forms of biological and geological evidence, can be used to reconstruct the vegetation-al history of different regions of Europe. One of the earliest and best-known applications of pollen analysis to archaeology is the reconstruction of the Early Postglacial vegetational history of southern Scandinavia. The pollen profiles document how pioneer species of trees, such as birch, pine, and willow, were gradually replaced by trees, such as oak and linden, during the reforestation of Europe at the end of the Ice Age.


A site is defined as any concentration of artifacts, ecofacts, or features that marks a location of past human activity. Settlement sites are locations where prehistoric and early medieval people lived on either a temporary or a permanent basis. They can range from temporary camp sites, such as the Early Meso-lithic site of Star Carr in Yorkshire, where hunter-gatherers resided for a few weeks, to farming villages of the Early Middle Ages that were permanently occupied for several centuries. Prehistoric Europeans also made use of quarry sites and mines to obtain raw materials, such as flint, salt, and metal ores. Cemetery sites first appear in the Late Mesolithic period in northern and eastern Europe. They are important sources of information on social organization, gender, and prehistoric ideology. Ritual or ceremonial sites, such as megalithic tombs and stone circles, can also shed light on prehistoric religion and cosmology. For example, excavations at the Iron Age site of Dun Ailinne in Ireland have revealed a series of large circular wooden structures that appear to be associated with the late prehistoric kings of Leinster. The site also appears to have served as a center for ritual feasting.

In the late twentieth century, archaeologists moved beyond the study of individual sites to examine the broader questions of prehistoric landscapes. Modern European archaeologists are concerned with the spatial relationships between archaeological sites of the same period and between individual sites and surrounding geographic features, such as lakes, rivers, forests, mountains, and valleys. Archaeologists have attempted to reconstruct the views and lines of sight from major prehistoric monuments. Stonehenge, for example, undoubtedly one of the most important sites in all of European prehistory, is situated in an agriculturally rich region in southern England known as the Downs and is surrounded by a series of wealthy burials, each of which was covered with a large earthen barrow.


Archaeologists derive meaning from artifacts, features, and ecofacts by examining which kinds of remains are associated with one another, how they are distributed spatially, and how they relate to the larger landscape and environment in which they are found. A key to the interpretation of material remains is the notion of archaeological context—the location of a find within a site and its relationship to other material remains. For example, a pottery vessel found near a hearth in a kitchen may have a very different meaning than one found within a burial pit. In order to preserve as much information as possible about archaeological context, archaeologists typically record the exact three-dimensional location of artifacts and features within a site. They also record the type of matrix (soil) in which an artifact is found and the artifacts that are associated (found together) with it. Looting (the illegal removal of artifacts from archaeological sites) destroys all information about the archaeological context of the finds. Because their context has been destroyed, looted artifacts can tell very little about the past.

Archaeological deposits are frequently stratified, or formed in a series of layers. The law of superposition indicates that the deepest stratum or layer was deposited first, and the uppermost was deposited last. Interpretation of the sequence of strata allows archaeologists to see changes through time. For example, in the early nineteenth century, Christian Jurgensen Thomsen, the first curator of the Danish National Museum, argued that stone artifacts were generally older than metal ones. The detailed excavations of his student, Jens Jacob As-mussen Worsaae, revealed that archaeological layers that contained only stone artifacts were always stratified below those that contained both stone and metal objects.

Archaeologists are also interested in studying variations in material culture across space. Archaeologists use the concept of archaeological culture to describe groups of artifacts and features that are found together repeatedly. As noted above, the Linearbandkeramik farmers of central Europe made distinctive pottery that was decorated with curvilinear designs. These early farmers lived in rectangular timber longhouses, grew emmer wheat, and kept cattle, pigs, and sheep. The Linearbandkeramik is a classic example of an archaeological culture. Archaeological cultures are limited in both time and space. LBK farming sites are spread across central Europe from France to Hungary, and most LBK sites date to the later sixth millennium b.c. It is not known whether or not all the LBK people spoke the same language or whether or not they would have recognized each other as members of a single ethnic group. However, archaeological cultures are useful in studying spatial and temporal variations in human behavior.

Under ideal circumstances, artifacts are found exactly where they were lost or discarded by prehistoric people. In the real world, a wide range of cultural and natural processes may have affected material remains between their abandonment by prehistoric Europeans and their discovery by modern archaeologists. As discussed above, many organic artifacts begin to decay in a matter of weeks or months. Plowing, construction, and burrowing animals can disturb features and remove artifacts from their original position. Looting also damages sites. Archaeologists must carefully assess ways in which their sites were modified by postdepositional processes, such as plowing, before they can use material remains to study the past. Understanding how the archaeological record is formed allows archaeologists to use material remains to reconstruct past life-ways and understand patterns of cultural change.

Some scholars argue that archaeological research is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle that is missing many of its pieces and that has no picture on the box. Others argue that archaeologists are more like detectives, piecing together past behavior from small clues. The archaeological record, like this historical record, is fragmentary and will never provide a complete picture of prehistoric life. However, archaeologists are constantly seeking new analytical techniques that will allow them to extract additional information from material remains.

Next post:

Previous post: