What is an Archaeological Feature?

Feature at Snake Creek II
This feature consists of a dark black stain with a pointy bottom. It may represent the rotted remnants of a post (called a post mold) or a small storage pit, or a rodent burrow. Mrs. Gemstone

A feature is a neutral term used by archaeologists to label anything – such as stains, architectural elements, floral or final deposits, artifact concentrations – discovered during archaeological research that cannot immediately be identified.

The idea of a feature is a function of how archaeological studies work: many things uncovered in an excavation or on survey cannot be identified until much later, in the lab or after analysis, or maybe never.

Features identified within archaeological excavations might include a group of artifacts found together, a patch of discolored soil, or a heap of unmodified rock. Features identified from aerial photography or field surveys might include odd patterns of vegetation growth or unexplained bumps or hollows in the earth.

Why Call Something a Feature?

Even if the archaeologist is pretty sure what an odd arrangement of stones means, he or she may designate it a "feature" anyway. Features generally have discrete vertical and horizontal boundaries--you need to be able to draw a circle around it to define what things are grouped together--but those boundaries could be a few centimeters or many meters long or deep. Designating something a "feature" allows the archaeologist to focus special attention on anomalies at a site, directing and delaying analysis until later when time and attention can be given to it.

A feature which is a collection of stone artifacts may in the lab be identified as the remnants of a stone working location; a discoloration of soil could be anything from a storage pit for perishable foods to a human burial to a privy pit to a rodent burrow. Features identified from aerial photography might turn out upon testing or further examination to be ancient walls, which have stunted the growth of plant life; or merely a result of the farmer's plowing technique.

This glossary entry is a part of the About.com Dictionary of Archaeology.