We have studied the ultrathin aluminum oxide film on NiAl(110) by a combination of high-resolution core-level spectroscopy and density functional theory calculations. Energy-dependent core-level data from the O 1s and Al 2p levels allows for a distinction between oxygen and aluminum atoms residing at the surface or inside the aluminum oxide film. A comparison to calculated core-level binding energies from the recent model by Kresse et al. Science 308, 1440 (2005) reveals good agreement with experiment, and the complex spectroscopic signature of the thin Al oxide on NiAl(110) can be explained. Our assignment of a shifted component in the O 1s spectra to oxygen atoms at the surface with a particular Al and oxygen coordination may have implications for the interpretation of photoelectron-diffraction experiments from similar ultrathin aluminum oxide films.