Context in Archaeology

It’s the time of year when I frantically try to finish reading various articles with 2016 (or 2015) publication dates so I can feel vaguely up to date in my diminishing awareness of my field and my discipline. It’s a sham, of course, as readers of this blog know, but a largely pious sham.

As part of this flailing, I took bizarre pleasure in reading James Whitely’s response in the JMA to Robin Osborne’s 2015 article in the same journal. The response was chippy but in a largely fun way and Osborne’s response to Whitley was equally entertaining. Both scholars, both offered some evidence for mutual respect and managed to talk past each other. In the process, though, it did make me think:

1. Academia as Theater. The debate between the two appears largely to be a kind of edu-tainment. Osborne’s article is intentionally hyperbolic, designed to nudge archaeologists into recognizing that objects in museums have contexts that remain relevant for historians and scholars of the ancient world. In places, Osborne is over the top, but surely this is puckish response to equally exaggerated anxiety expressed by archaeologists over objects without provenience which is so frequently presented to rooms full of nodding archaeologists. Whitley can hardly disagree with Osborne’s claims, but takes issue with his emphatic tone, and this gives him an opening to reassert the priority of archaeological context. Well, that’s fine, and whatever liberties Whitley takes with Osborne’s argument seems designed to provide his response with a spirit of entertaining bar-room banter rather than to make a solid scholarly point. Even casual readers of ancient history and archaeology know that both Osborne and Whitely are fine scholars and both value the myriad contexts that shape our reading of objects. Moreover, the JMA readership, who tends to be theoretically and practically savvy, are aware of this. (If this debate was playing out across the pages of a journal with a slightly broader audience – perhaps the AJA – it would have the appearances of a more sincerely scholarly enterprise)

The point of this debate, I suspect, is to entertain JMA readers and perhaps to stimulate a bit of barroom conversation of its own. The lack of careful, academic editing, in fact, gives the exchange a kind of bloggish feel. Whitely for example, is allowed to misrepresent Osborne’s argument in a basic factual ways (e.g. his claims that Osborne offered arguments based on the idea of “object biography” which is a phrase (and concept) that Osborne does not use; likewise Whitely’s critiques of Osborne’s reference to partage which were strangely decontextualized and misunderstood. Osborne responds to both of these points in his response to Whitley’s piece, but this also has a kind of fish-in-the-barrel feel to it. These are not serious conversations grounded in the theoretical or practical issues at stake, but playful banter between two senior scholars knowingly tweaking the other. If a more junior scholar – or a graduate student – made similar claims about Osborne’s article, the review and editing process would have surely called them out.).  

That being said and since this is a blog, I do feel like it is worth thinking about a few of the issues – however superficial they might be – that Osborne and Whitley spar over.

2. Context in Archaeology. One of Whitley’s most bizarre critiques of Osborne’s work is that Osborne claims all contexts are equal. Whitley sees this as a move toward a kind of relativism “where the significance of an object depends on its latest context?” and accuses Orborne (with an ironic twinkle in his eye, I’m sure) with not understanding how archaeologists use the word context.

I have admit that I’ve fallen into this same trap. At a recent ASOR panel on object biography, I was baffled by a participant repeating – mantra like – that an object without context is meaningless. Of course, this well-meaning archaeologist was talking about archaeological context, but, as Osborne notes, context (such as we continue to use that word in our post-Foucaldian world) is really relevant to the kinds of questions we ask of objects. There are plenty of contexts that are not archaeological that give objects meaning. Whitley’s hand-wring about a descent into a kind of amoral relativism would seem to almost prove Osborne’s point.

3. Archaeology as Context. Of course, as a field archaeologist, I recognize that archaeological context (that is in a proper sense) is significant and when doing field archaeology maintaining context is our pre-eminent concern and priority. In fact, I’d argue that the goal of field archaeology is to produce contexts that extend across materials – object assemblages, features, architecture, sites – and methods and methodology. If the last 30 years of intensive pedestrian survey in the Mediterranean has taught us anything it is that methodology offers as much a context for archaeological knowledge production as stratigraphy (and, in fact, methods and stratigraphy are co-dependent). A useful expansion of the concerns expressed by Whitley would extend to methodology which has not been as strong focus among excavators as a among survey archaeologists.  

4. Technological Contexts. In fact, I think that relatively naive attitudes toward methods among excavators has fueled the recent trend toward technological solutionism. My buddy Dimitri Nakassis posted a nice review of a little gaggle of articles in the BICS on his blog yesterday. In fact, this post reminded me to read Whitley’s article and to consider how the privileging of excavation contexts in archaeology has led to particular attitudes toward technology in our field. In one of the best-known, recent articles on the use of technology in excavation the authors playfully revised the age old archaeological mantra: “Excavation is Destruction Digitization: Advances in Archaeological Practice.” The tension between the role of archaeology in producing context (through methods) and destroying context (through the removal of sediment and strata and objects) has fueled an optimistic new generation of scholars who look to digital tools to bridge the gap. This hope for ever increasingly resolution in empirical knowledge is not bad, of course, except when it loses track of the big picture: archaeological contexts are created by the archaeologist in the service of particular questions about the past. 

5. Professional Contexts. Part of Osborne’s larger point in his article is that museum collections remain a relatively untapped resources especially for students and early career scholars. Whitley, in response, urges students and scholars to get more field experience, start and participate in field projects and to avoid the current vogue for theorizing at the expense of getting dirty. This is fine advice, but the realities of doing field work are more complex than just disciplinary trends. Field work is expensive, permits are difficult to acquire, and there is real risk (at least at American universities) for junior scholars planning to publish results from an excavation or survey as a contribution to their tenure packet. This is to say nothing of the political and social issues that shape fieldwork opportunities in the Mediterranean world.

In other words, there is a distinct professional context to archaeology and, in many ways, these pressures – much more so than a predilection for theory or a dislike for dirt – shape how archaeologists engage in knowledge production. It is disappointing that even in this playful barroom banter, two preeminent, senior, male scholars overlooked this key aspect of archaeological context.

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