Archaeological formation theory and geoarchaeology: State-of-the-art in 2016

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Since the influential work of Michael B. Schiffer on formation processes has been published in 1987, much has advanced on the part of environmental formation processes also known as N-transforms. Most new knowledge is the result of research conducted by geoarchaeologists. On the theoretical level, a huge leap forward was made with the realization that occupation deposits are artifacts of human activity. The focus of formation theory thus shifted from the artifact to the deposit. Methodological innovations and a geoarchaeological tool-kit, notably including the contextual technique of micromorphology, followed. Empirical studies of archaeological occupation deposits contributed new spatial and stratigraphic knowledge and understanding. A holistic middle-range methodology termed geo-ethnoarchaeology was developed, whereby macroscopic and microscopic artifacts are studied together with their associated sediments in ethnographic contexts, providing contextual (social) information about the relationship between artifacts and the surrounding sediments as archaeological assemblages form. This method is especially powerful when sequentially dated abandoned settlements or features are studied to provide mechanistic understanding of assemblage and/or site formation through degradation. Because geo-ethnoarchaeology is based on general chemical, biological and physical laws, the resultant mechanistic models are applicable globally, for any time period, culture, and environment. The new tools and mechanistic understanding by which N-transforms are currently studied, provide means to more reliably interpret the archaeological record, which is crucial for the credibility of archaeology. Therefore, when studying archaeological assemblages one should utilize the tool-kit developed by geoarchaeologists to first assess the states of preservation of the various material assemblages (macroscopic and microscopic), as it should be borne in mind that assemblages identified to be well-preserved will produce the most reliable archaeological interpretation. The theory and method of geoarchaeology have matured enough to allow responsible archaeological research into the meaning of spatial and temporal (stratigraphic) patterns at any given site.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)36-43
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Archaeological Science
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2017


  • Assemblage formation
  • Geoarchaeology
  • Method
  • N-transforms
  • Research design
  • Site formation processes
  • Theory

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Archaeology
  • Archaeology


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