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Archaeological Formation Processes

Formation processes are the events that affect how sites of human activity came to be buried and what happened to them afterwards. Each site has evidence of use and abandonment. Once the site ceases to have human activity present, it becomes subject to a myriad of events that dictate its potential survival and future in the archaeological record. Examples can include: later human activity, weathering, and plant and animal interaction.

There are two main types of formation processes. It is extremely important to learn to distinguish between the two, as it can drastically affect the interpretation of the site (e.g. Cut marks on bone can be from man made tools, animals):

Cultural Transformation Processes (C-Transforms): which involve all human activity, intentional or otherwise. Examples would include farming, tool making, building, etc. Human interaction follows the cycle of acquisition, manufacturing, use, and disposal. An object can enter the archaeological record at any point during this cycle, providing even more information to modern researchers. Burial, both of our dead, and of material goods count towards a C-Transform.

Natural Transformation Processes (N-Transforms): natural events ranging from accumulation of sand and soil, land movement by rain and water, plant and animal interference, even natural disasters and phenomena such as landslides and volcanic eruption. Unlike C-Transforms, N-Transforms are continuously ongoing, and depend heavily on climate and location. This also plays a role in regards to what is preserved in the archaeological record. Inorganic materials have a better chance of surviving regardless of what transformation process occurs, whereas organic substances degrade much faster and are more sensitive to N-Transforms.

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Looking to Find Out More?

Site Formation Processes- How Did That Archaeological Site Get There? – Why is an Archaeological Site Like a Palimpsest?- by K. Kris Hirst

Michael Schiffer 1996 Formation Processes of the Archaeological Record. University of Utah Press: Salt Lake City

Nash, D.T and Petraglia, M.D (eds.). 1987 Natural Formation Processes and the Archaeological Record, British Archaeological Reports, International Series 352: Oxford.

Michael B. Schiffer Toward the Identification of Formation Processes, American Antiquity, Vol. 48, No. 4 (Oct., 1983), pp. 675-706


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