Deciphering meaning from objects in context is the business of archaeology.
– David Hurst Thomas 1998:1
Artifacts found in context are powerful witnesses to the stories of past people. Out of context, they are merely lovely, mute objects.
– Mary Ann Drass n.d.
The absolute most important aspect of archeology is context, which is made of all the associations, or relationships, of a given artifact or feature in its original location. Archeologists carefully document the context – the three-dimensional location, along with associated artifacts, soil types, ecofacts, and so on – recording each attribute so that the history of that individual artifact may be reconstructed and fitted into the larger histories of the site and region. Artifacts without context (also referred to as provenience), lose their scientific value, or their ability to contribute to reconstructions, explanations, and interpretations of the past. This is why archeologists are so against looting – it is not necessarily the removal of a precious artifact that angers archeologists, but rather the loss of information that could have been gathered about the relationships of that single artifact to its surroundings – other artifacts, features, sites, and even the entire cultural landscape of the past.
The following examples will hopefully help demonstrate the importance of context in archeological investigations:
The Antiquity of People in North America: In the 1920s, a single projectile point (spearhead) was found lodged within the ribs of an extinct bison. Because of its context within (rather than above or adjacent to) the ribs, this single artifact demonstrated without a doubt the antiquity of people in North America, settling a debate that had gone on for decades and starting a new chapter in the archeology of the Southwest. The artifact? – The now famous Folsom point from the Folsom type site in NM.
I am a Gold Tiara: In 1896, the Louvre announced its purchase of the gold tiara of the Scythian king Siatapharnes. To some experts, the tiara confirmed the historically reported tale of Siatapharnes’ siege of Olbia. To others, however, the artifact seemed a forgery. The lack of provenience for the artifact left the authenticity of the artifact a mystery until Isreal Rouchomovsky – the talented goldsmith who was commissioned to make the tiara – presented himself as the creator of the tiara. In this case, the tiara ultimately earned the title of ‘priceless art;’ however, with the context known, would it have remained an ‘antiquity’ falsely contributing to history?
Romans in Tucson? Between 1924 and 1930, 32 Roman artifacts, including lead crosses, swords, and a broken spear were recovered near Silverbell Road, Tucson, AZ by Charles Manier and his family. The inscriptions in Latin and Greek dated the crosses between A.D. 790 and 900. However, Thomas Bent, a friend of Charles Mariner reported that a boy living in the area roughly 40 years before the discovery liked to metal smith and had likely made the artifacts. The context of the artifacts – namely the discrepancy between the dates on the artifact and the time at which the soils in which they lay were deposited, as well as the fact that the inscriptions could be found in grammars from the late 1800s – suggests the second scenario is the more likely. Some people continue to believe in a Roman presence in Tucson, and others that the whole scenario nothing but an elaborate hoax.
Without context, archeological materials lose their meaning. Does a metate placed in a garden as a potholder tell you anything about the prehistoric person who made and used it? Does an arrowhead collection tell you anything about who made them, where they came from, what animals the users sought, or when they were used? The unfortunate answer is an emphatic NO. However, careful excavations conducted in an archeological site may recover the same artifacts and the contextual information necessary to reconstructing, explaining, and interpreting their use, importance, function, and meaning in the past.
Drass, Mary Ann n.d. Archaeological Context, online slideshow available at http://www.ou.edu/cas/archsur/flash/stratigraphy.htm. Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, Norman, Oklahoma.
Thomas, David Hurst 1998 Archaeology. Third Edition. Harcourt Brace and Company, Orlando, Florida.