What is an Archaeological Site? A Primer for Understanding Archaeology

By Noah Bryant, Environmental Review Archaeologist, Historic Preservation Division


Archaeology is the study of human history and prehistory through the materials that people left behind. The identification and analysis of this material hinges on the proper identification of archaeological sites. Understanding what makes a place an archaeological site is the foundation for archaeology as a discipline, as it establishes the framework for interpreting the materials left behind by people who previously lived on and used the land that we occupy today.

A general definition of an archaeological site is as follows:

a site formed from a concentration of cultural materials, typically referred to as artifacts, ecofacts (naturally organic or inorganic remains found in a site – think charcoal, seeds, minerals, or unmodified shell or bone), or areas of modified landscape that are associated with past human activity.

Burying a bunch of objects in a backyard does not automatically form an archaeological site. To clarify historic classification, the age of the deposits is taken into account when identifying sites. The magic number for archaeology and above-ground resources is 50 years, that’s when a simple trash dump site can become a “historic” trash dump.

Now that we have established the basics of defining an archaeological site in the most general terms, let us turn our attention to more specific criteria. In Georgia there is no legal definition of an archaeological site; however, the Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists developed standards and guidelines that help define more precisely what is considered an archaeological site. In addition to the age requirement of 50 years or older, The Georgia Council of Professional Archaeologists defines a site as:

  • Surface scatter that yields three or more artifacts from the same broad cultural period (i.e., historic (after written documentation introduced) or precontact (prior to 1492)) within a 30-meter radius;
  • Two or more shovel tests yielding at least one artifact each within 30m of each other;
    • Shovel tests are used by archaeologists to systematically test an area for archaeological materials below the ground’s surface.
  • A single shovel test that yields three or more artifacts from the same broad cultural period, as long as the artifacts cannot be fitted together (i.e., they are not fragments of the same artifact);
  • An area with visible or cultural features (e.g., shell midden, graves, rock shelters, petroglyphs, chimney fall, brick walls, stone piled features, piers, stills, prospect pits, military earthworks, etc.);
  • An abandoned cemetery or grave; or
  • A singular artifact if its significance can be justified as culturally meaningful (e.g., Paleo projectile point) and/or it is associated with specific surface or landscape features.

That seems like a lot, but standards like those listed above help archaeologists properly identify and record archaeological sites throughout Georgia. You may be wondering, what do archaeologists do once they identify an archaeological site in the field – well they record and report! Properly recording and reporting the location and type of site that has been identified is an important part of archaeology. In Georgia that information is recorded using an Official State Site Form, which is submitted to Georgia Archaeological Site File,  housed at the University of Georgia then the site can receive an Official State Site Number. For example, the Etowah Mounds State Historic Site has the site number 9BR1. Nine indicates the state of Georgia, BR indicates Bartow County, and one since it was the first site recorded in the county.

While anyone can submit an archaeological site form to get an official site number, it is typically the best practice to employ a professional archaeologist to identify and complete the form, as they are familiar with the ins and outs of archaeology. HPD maintains a self-nominated directory of consultants that may be able to assist in investigating potential archaeological sites on your property.

Archaeological sites and the artifacts documented from them are crucial for understanding the history of Georgia. During the Environmental Review process, our team works closely with projects when Section 106 review is triggered. If you would like to know more about our Environmental Review Archaeology program, please email archaeology@dca.ga.gov.

Additionally, our colleagues at the Office of the State Archaeologist handle archaeology in the state more broadly. Learn more about their work at https://gastateparks.org/archaeology

Now that you are familiar with what makes a site a site, you’re on your way to becoming a regular Archaeologist; however, it is always best to consult a professional archaeologist if you ever have questions about what you can and cannot do to archaeological sites. Please use your resources and follow all related laws and regulations before disturbing any archaeological site.