Archaeological Context

Every now and then an article catches in my head for some reason. Recently it’s been a JMA article by Donald Haggis who was wrote in response to a conversation between Robin Osborne and James Whitley on the nature and meaning of archaeological context. Osborne proposed that collections in the museums, despite the tendency to be decontextualized by archaeological standards, still have the potential to contribute in significant ways to the discipline whereas archaeologists often overstate the value of archaeological contexts to contribute to conversations relevant to ancient historians or art historians. Whitley, in response, reasserted the value and importance of archaeological contexts for establishing chronology, function, and geographic or spatial provenience. Haggis, for his contribution to the conversation, noted that the field of Classical archaeology does more than simply provide context for objects that art historians, historians, and Classicists study, but also has its own set of research questions and ways of viewing objects, sites, and landscapes that are independent from the wider field of Classics, but nevertheless offer important and complicated ways of thinking about the past.

What made this article stick in my head was not so much Haggis’s claim that Classical archaeology has a kind of disciplinary significance outside of producing the context for objects as secure data points for arguments made in different disciplines, but his larger recognition that the idea of archaeological context requires additional scrutiny. In fact, I’d argue that the entire concept of archaeological context is perhaps sufficiently problematic that archaeologists should either define the term very narrowly or rejected it entirely. Here, I suppose, I’m leaning on Michel Foucault’s larger critique of context in Archaeologies of Knowledge (p. 109-112).  

In practical terms, I remember wandering through a storeroom in the Mediterranean and seeing a tray of objects that were labeled “No Context.” One of the objects had a tag with the word “surface” written on it and a GPS coordinate. This struck me as a fair narrow definition of the term “context.” At first, I imagined it as shorthand for “stratigraphic context,” but, of course, the surface is a stratigraphic level. Perhaps the tag writer meant “excavated context” which might be more true except that many (although not all) projects do excavate the surface as part of the plow zone, but this is a methodological decision or at very least a procedural one. It may be that the object did not appear as part of the surface or plow zone of a particular trench therefore it didn’t derive from a context defined by excavation. Perhaps the surface of the site was removed by a bulldozer prior to excavation similarly excising the plow zone from the contexts defined by conventional excavation methods. My point here isn’t so much to criticize a lack of precision in how a project defined context, but to suggest that the very idea of archaeological context is ambiguous. In fact, I’m as guilty as anyone when I casually refer to artifacts from intensive pedestrian survey as lacking stratigraphic context, which is technically untrue, beyond the idea that a single stratum as little meaning if not understood in relation to another stratum or strata whether the stratum is on the surface or subsurface. Strata and stratigraphy is relative.

Haggis, of course, recognizes this. Even a stratigraphically excavated site, individual strata only derive their context for a particular method. As careful work in micromorphology and microstratrigraphy has demonstrated, archaeologists regularly aggregate depositional events that more fine-grained methods can pull apart. Generally speaking our willingness to define stratigraphic levels derives from out particular research questions. The leveling fill for an early Christian basilica, for example, that offers a terminus post quem for the reconstruction of a particular district in the city. Microstratigraphy might be able to reveal individual dumps of material to form the fill, but this probably would not contribute much to how we date the entire fill. In another context, the documentation of microstratigraphy in the dromos of a tholos tomb could reveal how many times the tomb was opened and resealed over its life and this would speak to the ritual life of the tomb. In other words even stratigraphic and depositional contexts are simply extensions of our methods and since the methods for identifying microstratigraphy are sufficiently specialized and different from typical excavation methods, we might argue that these contexts are methodological.

Methods and methodological contexts, however, provide only one part of our definition of an “archaeological context.” Anyone who has stumbled upon a looting hole and noticed tidy scarps and sifted soil, realizes that looters can follow good field practices, if not methods. Moreover, we know that some stratigraphic excavations cannot provide archaeological contexts by dint of their occurring without proper permits or in areas like occupied Northern Cyprus where most excavation, however proper in terms of practice, is illegal for geopolitical reasons.   

All this is to say that Haggis is right in recognizing that Classical archaeology frames its own questions and adopts methods and practices according to those questions. I might, however, take his argument a bit further to suggest that it’s not just the questions posed by Classical archaeology that defines “archaeological context,” but archaeological contexts are also formed by the politics, methods, and objects themselves. At some point, it becomes unhelpful to talk about archaeological context or even contexts as something at all. The term “archaeological context” might be the kind of Latourian “black box” that serves to obscure more than it reveals and to generalize a dense and complex range of tensions and priorities in a universal way. 

It might be more helpful, instead, to talk about how assemblages produce meaning. For the archaeologist, the assemblage extends beyond groups of artifacts to include the methods, field practices, strata, and the questions that an archaeologist or ancient historian asks of the field work. After all, the questions that we ask as Classical or Mediterranean archaeologists do not alone define our work. We are as indebted to historical practices, institutional bureaucracies, and even a commitment to a work in an open ended way so that the results of our field work might be useful to others who may bring different questions to our “legacy data.” More importantly, archaeology has increasingly recognized the ethical aspects of our work that extend from how we listen to and respect indigenous archaeological traditions to how we treat our colleagues and students during field work, how we present our findings, and how we disseminate our work through publications. 

The benefit to the discipline of archaeology of dissolving the concept of “archaeological context” is that it opens a more expansive space to discuss, define, and debate what we do and how we establish the discursive limits to our practices and discipline. In the end, this might be the most effective way to resolve the issue that Haggis reiterates in his conclusion: “we do not really think very much about method and practice, and we rarely address (critically or otherwise) the study of archaeological context as an endeavor with rather different goals, perspectives, applications, and indeed very different sorts of data, than those commonly employed by our colleagues in classics, ancient history, and art history.” 


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