Archaeological Context

I read with some interest an article by Robin Osborne in the Journal of Mediterranean Archaeology 28.2 (2015) titled “De-contextualising and Re-contextualising: Why Mediterranean Archaeology Needs to Get out of the Trench and Back into the Museum.” 

The title is certainly provocative, and I was ready to disagree vehemently with much of what he said. Of course, conventional archaeology (and I am a conventional archaeologist) establishes the dominant context for any artifact. The place of an object within an archaeological assemblage establishes the all important provenience for a find, has the best potential for establishing a chronological context for the object’s deposition and offers key clues for the object’s function. Moreover, the trench or the survey unit offers a space for the object to work with other objects to establish the function and chronology for levels, buildings, events, spaces, and places. An artifact without provenience sitting on a museum shelf or in a storeroom somewhere has less of a chance to do any of this archaeological work because it lacks proper archaeological context. Finally, the primacy of archaeological context has taken on an ethical dimension. The unprovenienced artifact, frequently purchased on the antiquities market, represents the destruction brought about by looting, illegal, and undocumented excavations, which leads invariably to the monetization of heritage and the loss of vital historical knowledge about the past. In other words, archaeological context is where an object does the most work, makes the most meaning, contributes the most to our understanding of the past.

Osborne knows this, of course, and his scholarship throughout his career has shown great sensitivity to archaeological context and archaeological knowledge. At the same time, he recognizes that unprovenienced artifacts tend to be more accessible to scholars and frequently line the shelf of small museums – especially those at universities – around the world. For Osborne, these museum collections represent untapped resource for understanding the ancient world (and the blame for this rests largely on the shoulders of archaeologists who have privileged their methods to the exclusion of other approaches to objects). He then goes on to demonstrate how small collections of objects often invite greater scrutiny of details and offer the kind of limited and bounded assemblages that provide foundations for generalizations that other scholars can test with other groups of objects elsewhere. There are shades of a “slow archaeology” here which rewards the careful, patient, and critical scrutiny of an object over the collection of masses of data. 

This is all great and offers us a nice reminder that archaeological context represents but a single lens for understanding objects. More than that, though, I wonder if Osborne has in his sights a larger critique of context as a way of understanding the relationship between an object and its place in the wider world. In other words, if you argue that every object has a context and the relationship between other objects, various disciplinary methods and intellectual approaches define this context, then I think the term context becomes meaningless. (And this is not really my observation, but Foucault’s). It is inevitable, of course, that when we stop privileging context – any context – as the foundation for an object’s value, we will cast ourselves adrift amid a sea of endless relationships between objects. At the same time, Osborne’s article, whatever we think of the particulars, reminds us that contexts have a context and a critical scrutiny of an object’s in its place always presents an opportunity for the production of knowledge. 

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