The main components of archeological sites in the Southwest consist of artifacts, ecofacts, and features.

Artifacts are portable objects constructed or modified by humans.  Some of the major classes of artifacts common to sites in the Southwest include:

  • Ceramics:  Pottery appeared around A.D. 1 in much of the Southwest, and was present in some regions as much as 300 years earlier.  In the Southwest, pottery is extremely important to interpreting archeological sites, deposits, features, and landscapes.  Generally, there are two major divisions used to classify pottery: wares and types.  Wares are ceramics made in a similar technological style across a given region for a specified period of time, whereas types are ceramics of the same ware that differ in the manner of decoration.  Both wares and types are often diagnostic of cultural affiliation and time periods.  A particularly useful and accurate technique is the calculation of the ‘mean ceramic date,’ or the average of all the median dates for the ceramics present in a site assemblage.  Vessel morphology is also important in ceramic studies in the Southwest.  Some common ceramic forms include:
    • Sherds: Sherds are broken pieces of pottery from any type of vessel.  Sherds are a near ubiquitous medium in the Southwest, and far more common than complete vessels.
    • Jars:  Jars are ceramic vessels often associated with storage of food, seeds, and water.
    • Bowls: Bowl forms are most often associated with serving food rather than storage.
    • Utensils: Utensils such as ladles, spoons, and scoops were also often made of ceramic material.  Some utensils were molded, while others were made from broken pieces of larger vessels such as platters, bowls, and jars.
    • Platters: Platters are serving dishes either molded intentionally or made from reshaped broken bowls and jars.  Some platters resemble bowls, but are much shallower.
    • Figurines: Ceramic figurines in the Southwest took many forms, ranging from small roughly shaped humanoid figures to exquisitely shaped effigy pots .
    • Spindle Whorls: Another class of ceramic form in the Southwest is that of the spindle whorls.  Spindle whorls were either molded or carefully shaped from sherds, and used as weights in spinning fibers into thread and yarn for textiles.
    • Jewelry:  Ceramic sherds were also shaped into pendants and beads.
  • Faunal Bone: Faunal bone by itself may more accurately fall into the ecofact class, as most archeological faunal bone constitutes natural, unmodified bone from the processing of animals for food.  However, in the Southwest, many types of faunal bone were turned into artifacts, the more common of which are listed below:
    • Awls:  Bone awls, often made from rabbit ulnas (forearm bones) or slivers of large mammal bone, were used to puncture leather and to fabricate clothing and baskets.
    • Whistles: The hollow long bones of animals, and in particular, birds were shaped into whistles and/or flutes.
    • Hairpins:  Animal bone was also shaped into beautifully decorated hairpins.
    • Projectile Points:  Like stone, bone could be shaped into projectile points, or arrow/spear heads, for hunting.
    • Gaming Pieces: Bone was also shaped into gaming pieces (dice, for example).
    • Ornaments: Animal bone was also shaped into pendants, beads, and/or carved with designs, with the function or meanings largely unknown to archeologists.  Some may have been gaming pieces rather than ornaments.
  • Flaked Stone: Flaked stone artifacts are the most ubiquitous artifacts across the world.  In the simplest terms, flaked stone artifacts consist of the debitage (the debris of manufacture) and the finished products of stone tool manufacture.  Flaked stone studies emphasize identifying and explaining changes in technology, trade and mobility, subsistence, and cultural affiliation.  Common types of flaked stone artifacts include:
    • Debitage: The debris of stone tool manufacture, including flakes, shatter, and cores.
    • Projectile Points:  Projectile points, or arrow/spear heads, are perhaps the most easily recognized archeological artifact.  Like ceramic wares and types, projectile points are often diagnostic to particular time periods and cultures.
    • Drills: Drills are common stone tools in the Southwest and are often associated with the manuacture of ornaments.
    • Agave knives:  Agave, or sotol, knives are common flaked stone tools on agricultural sites in the Southwest.  The name of these tools stems from the likely function of the tool in cutting agave leaves and other succulent desert plants.
  • Groundstone:  Groundstone artifacts comprise an artifact class with numerous forms and functions.  The broadest definition of groundstone is stone that has been pecked or ground into a specific shape.  Groundstone artifacts are most commonly associated with sites post-dating the terminal Pleistocene/ early Holocene (approximately 8,000 years ago), when a greater emphasis on plant resources became common in the Southwest.  Groundstone artifacts are by no means as diagnostic as ceramic types and projectile points; however, morphological and raw material source studies have resulted in the identification of manufacturing locations, and in some instances, cultural affiliations.  Groundstone artifacts common to the Southwest include:
    • Manos and Metates:  Together, a mano (handstone) and metate (lapstone/netherstone) form a tool set generally used for grinding plant foods such as native seeds and maize (corn).  Changes in mano and metate forms over time have been linked to the adoption and increased reliance on maize in the Southwest.
    • Mortars and Pestles:  Like manos and metates, pestles are often associated with plant food processing.  However, pestles were used in a pounding or circular grinding motion in a mortar (cup or bowl) or grinding cupule in bedrock.  Smaller mortars and pestles were also used for grinding pigments.
    • Shaft Abraders:  Characteristic of shaft abraders are one or more u-shaped grooves.  Shaft abraders were likely used to smooth wooden shafts for arrows, drills, and other hafted tools.
    • Palettes:  Flat stone slabs, usually of a tabular material like mica-schist or slate, and often intricately carved.  Palettes are thought to have served as implements on which pigments were mixed into paint.  In the Southwest, however, most palettes are most often recovered from burial contexts, and so may have served additional functions.
    • Grooved Axes: Grooved axes were likely first flaked and/or pecked to achieve the desired shape, and then ground and polished.  Some grooved axes likely served a functional purpose, but like palettes, axes are often recovered from burial contexts, suggesting an alternate purpose/meaning.
    • Spindle Whorls:  Stone spindle whorls were shaped and ground from tabular materials such as schist, and used as weights in spinning fibers into thread and yarn for textiles.
    • Ornaments: A variety of ground and polished stone jewelry, including beads, nose plugs, pendants, and shaped mosaic pieces are known from sites across the Southwest.  Mosaic pieces and inlaid stone were used to decorate jewelry, staffs, and special vessels, inclduing mugs and jars made of ceramic, wood, and basketry.  Common materials for these artifacts include turquoise and argillite.
  • Shell:  Shell in the Southwest was almost entirely used for ornaments, including bracelets, beads, tinklers, rings, pendants, and other ornamentation.  The Hohokam even used acid to etch designs into larger shells, later painting the designs for greater effect.
  • Textiles/Basketry: Textiles and basketry preserve far less often that the other materials listed above.  However, from dry cave situations in the Southwest, baskets, woven cloth, rabbit-skin rope, sandals, and a variety of other woven materials have been identified.  The oldest textiles known for the Southwest date back 4000 years or more.


Ecofacts and Architectural Remains
Ecofacts constitute a large class of natural materials that have relevance to human behavior.  For example, pollen, plant remains, and animal bone can reveal the diets of ancient people, while charcoal provides a medium for radiocarbon dating.  Architectural remains, such as mat imprints provide information about the weaving/textile technologies of a people, and roof beams such as those used in Puebloan masonry structures, can be dated using dendrochronology.  Common types of ecofacts are listed below, with short descriptions of their uses in archeology:

  • Burned Clay: Burned clay, such as that used to plaster floors and hearths (firepits) can be used to date the last use of a structure.  This type of dating is called archaeomagnetic dating, and relies on changes in the earth’s magnetic field over time.  The iron particles contained in clay align to the position of the magnetic north pole, and when fired, freeze in place.  By comparing the alignment of the particles to a map of the pole’s location in the past, it is possible to reconstruct a date range for when the clay burned.
  • Charcoal/Wood: Charcoal is often a clear indicator of human presence.  Moreover, objects that have been burned, such as plant materials and bone, often preserve better than those that have not been burned.  Charcoal and wood are most important in archeology, however, because they can be used for radiocarbon dating and tree-ring dating, and can be used to identify the wood resources available or sought after.  For example, the studies of roof beams at the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon  demonstrated that the beams originated more than 50 miles away, in the Chuska Mountains to the west and in the Mt. Taylor area to the southeast.
  • Coprolites:  Coprolites are preserved human feces.  Coprolites store an enormous amount of information about ancient human diet and health.  For example, parasitic worms preserve in feces, and do the chemical components and larger remains of medicinal plants used to treat them.  To learn more about coprolite studies in archeology, read the paper Coprolite Analysis: A Biological Perspective in Archeology (pdf download)  by K.J. Reinhard and V.M. Bryant (1992).
  • Faunal Bone:  Animal bones inform on diet, changes in diet and the environment over time, mobility strategies, transportation strategies, health, and a variety of the aspects of ancient human life.  Faunal bone can also inform on animal domestication, as in the case of the turkeys kept by ancient people in the Southwest.
  • Plant Remains:  Plant remains, often referred to as macrobotanicals, provide a variety of information ranging from diet to medicine to textile production.  Many plants were also used as dyes for paint and clothing.
  • Pollen:  Pollen preserved on archeological sites informs researchers about the ancient environment, and the foods processed and/or grown by prehistoric people.  Pollen, when examined over time, also informs on environmental and dietary changes.
  • Residues:  Preserved residues also provide a mass of information about diet, prehistoric materials used in hafting tools, and tool function.  For example, the residue studies conducted on certain flake tools of Hinds Cave in Texas demonstrate that the tools were actually used as cutting tools, not scraping tools as previously thought.  The studies also identified the plant materials that the tools were used on: agave, sotol, and lechuguilla.

Features are non-portable constructions that reflect human activity.  Typically, features are constructions that cannot be moved from their original location without significant alteration or destruction to the feature.  The remains of houses and other features, and their relationships to each other, inform archeologists about the size and growth of communities, social and spatial organization, mobility, subsistence, exchange, and technology.  Features cover a range of constructions, use areas, and structures in the Southwest; common types are listed below:

  • Agricultural Features: Agricultural features of the Southwest take a variety of forms, such as rock alignments, rock piles, check dams, berms of earth or volcanic cinders, weirs, and canals of various sizes.  The most impressive of these features are undoubtedly the immense canal systems of the Hohokam in Arizona’s southern deserts.
  • Burials: Burials in the Southwest include both human and animal inhumations and cremations.  Inhumations are burials in which the entire skeleton in placed in the ground, whereas in cremations, the bone in first burned, and then buried.  Burial practices in the Southwest can be diagnostic to culture and time period.  For example, Hohokam people typically cremated their dead, whereas the northern Mogollon and Puebloan groups tended to inhumations.
  • Granaries: Granaries in the Southwest took a variety of forms, ranging from bare-earth storage pits or cysts to large cylindrical masonry silos.  Granaries were used primarily for storage of maize seed and other food stuffs.
  • Grinding Rocks:  Grinding rocks in the Southwest include grinding slicks and grinding rocks in which mortars/cupules have been pecked and/or ground into the surface.  Typically, grinding rocks were used for grinding plant remains for food.
  • Hearths:  Hearths, or firepits, are among the smallest and most ubiquitous features in the Southwest.
  • Pithouses: Pithouses in the Southwest were semi-subterranean earthen structures with domed roofs and low side entries, or entries through the roof.  Pithouses took a variety of forms ranging from oval to rectangular; a variety of sizes, with the larger structures, such as that at Montezuma Well, measuring 3-4 times that of ‘normal’ houses; and a variety of orientations, some of which are very diagnostic to prehistoric cultural affiliations and time periods.
  • Pueblos: Above-ground masonry structures ranging from a few rooms to hundreds.  Some pueblos, such as Pecos Pueblo and Pueblo Bonito, were as many as five stories tall.
  • Trails: Trails in the Southwest, although common, are often difficult to recognize because of their ephemeral nature.  To learn more about the archeology of trails in the Southwest, view the poster by J.A. Darling, C. Loendorf, and G. Rice entitled He’Kugam Vo:g, Ancient Trail Networks in the Arid Southwest.