The definition of an archeological site is very flexible, incorporating in some cases only a few artifacts and in others, large, complex cities occupied for hundreds or even thousands of years.  In the simplest terms, then, and archeological site can be defined as any concentration of material remains marking the location of past human activities.

Many agencies, however, employ specific guidelines for defining archeological sites.  For example, Arizona State Museum (ASM)  (Fish 1995), requires adherence to the following definitional rules for naming sites in Arizona:

  • Contains material remains at least 50 years old
  • Consists of 30 or more artifacts of a single class within a 15 meter diameter area OR 20 or more artifacts of two or more classes within a 15 meter diameter area OR one or more archeological features in association with artifacts OR two or more temporally associated features without associated artifacts OR a single linear feature, such as a road or historic power line.

In addition to using agency-specific definitions, most archeologists define sites based on the age of the remains, the density and/or diversity of artifacts and features present on site, and the function of the site.  These categorical definitions are classed as site types, such as artifact scatters or habitation sites.  Some common southwestern site types are listed below:

  • Agricultural sites:  Sites comprising of agricultural fields and/or agriculture-related features such canals, rock piles, and rock alignments.
  • Artifact scatters: Sites composed entirely of artifacts and lacking associated features.  Some artifact scatters may be comprised of a single material, such as a flaked stone or ceramics, whereas others encompass multiple artifact types.
  • Habitation sites:  Habitation sites in the Southwest cover a range of site manifestations, including the ephemeral campsites of Paleoindians, such as that at Murray Springs, AZ, and ranging to the massive villages of the Hohokam, such as Snaketown, and Puebloan peoples, who constructed the still mysterious Chacoan communities.
  • Kill sites:  Sites comprised of artifacts and features indicating the successful kill of one or more animals, and often the subsequent butchering processes as well.  Famous kill sites in the Southwest include the Clovis-age Lehner mammoth kill site in AZ and the much more recent Garnsey bison kill site in NM. 
  • Resource procurement sites:  Resource procurement sites cover a range of site sub-types, all of which focused on the procurement of some type of resource, such as raw tool stone or mesquite pods.
  • Rock art: Rock art sites consist of painted (pictographs) or pecked (petroglyphs) art on rock faces and cave walls.  The study of rock art sites in the Southwest is highly specialized, with entire institutions, such as the Rock Art Foundation; associations, including the Utah Rock Art Research Association; and private webpages, such as Rock Art Southwest by Gary Casco dedicated to recording,  interpreting, and sharing rock art from across the region.

The majority of the national monuments of the American Southwest grew from a need to preserve and protect important archeological sites, such as Wupatki, Casa Grande, and El Morro.  To explore some of these ruins, click on the map in the Topics menu to the left and then select a specific location to visit.

References Cited:
Fish, Paul R.
1995  Revised Site Definition Policy, letter issued August 21, 1995 by Arizona State Museum, University of Arizona, Tucson.  Available in ASM’s Archaeological Site Recording Manual, version 1.1, December 1, 1993.