Archaeology 101: Artifact versus Feature

Here at Campus Archaeology we tend to throw around a lot of terms that aren’t necessarily public knowledge. Two of the most frequently terms used are artifact and feature.

Wedgewood fig design fragments.
Artifact: Wedgewood fig design fragments. From Saint’s Rest.

An artifact is any portable object made by humans or used by humans. The majority of items we recover from campus are artifacts. This includes all of the glass, nails, metal, ceramics and bricks that we find while excavating. Artifacts can be made of any material, and can be any size as long as they are portable to some extent. When analyzing these we first determine time period broadly, historic or prehistoric, then the type of material, and any stylistic traits. From artifacts we learn a lot about what items people were using, when they were popular, what foods they were eating, and even social processes within the campus like breaking the rules. An example of a prehistoric artifact are the bifaces (projectile points) that have recently been found. The stone tool is at least 5,000 years old and was created and used by the native people of the area. An example of a historic artifact is the inkwell found from the Brody-Emmons excavation. It was used by early 20th century students, and discarded during the 1930’s or 1940’s.

Feature: The drastic differences in soil color in this excavation unit indicate a feature may be present.
Feature: The drastic differences in soil color in this excavation unit indicate a feature may be present.

A feature is defined as a nonmoveable element of an archaeological site. Features are evidence of human activity that primarily consist of cultural made materials which are part of the natural layer. Features can include trash pits, hearths, walls, or pathways. We have found a number of features on the MSU campus during our excavations. This summer we excavated a prehistoric feature that is potentially a hearth. You can see from the image that there is a charcoal area and an irregular basin shaped portion on the wall of this excavation unit. Clearly this is not a natural phenomenon, but suggests instead human activity. A historic feature that was found this summer was the cinder pathway. We were able to learn more about the historic landscape of MSU, however the sidewalk itself could not be taken out without destroying it.

For previous lessons about archaeology, check out Terry’s:

Archaeology 101: Reading Stratigraphy

Archaeology 101: Shovel Test Pits.

Author: Katy Meyers Emery

2 thoughts on “Archaeology 101: Artifact versus Feature”

  • I have an item I would like to have examined to determine what it is and I am unsure of how to go about it. It appears to be a type of fossil. Any direction would be appreciated! Thank you!

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