We tend to think of archaeologists as primarily studying artifacts but there is much more to archaeological investigations. Archaeologists are not solely interested in the "things" of the past but are most concerned with the context or how an artifact or other type of archaeological find was found in relation to everything else at the archaeological site. Each feature and artifact found on a site has a relationship in time and space to the other features and artifacts at the same site. The primary context is the undisturbed, original position of a find. In other words, the find is found in the spot that it was placed by the last person who was using it. A secondary context is when the find has been disturbed by later human or natural activity such as a burial mound being used for a later burial at the same spot and disturbing the first burial. Natural disturbance of a site could occur through floods, tree roots, animal activity, earthquakes, or flooding. In order to evaluate the context of archaeological data, archaeologists must record the provenience, association, and matrix of the find.
Investigations at American Indian Farmstead and Context
The 2017 excavations at the American Indian Farmstead site in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest is an example of how context helps archaeologist understand the archaeological record. The description below explains how features discovered at the same site were identified as two separate occupations separated by 200 years.
"Previous excavations (www.fs.usda.gov/detail/conf/news-events/…) determined a house burned at the location around A.D. 1600. Evidence for this house consists of a prepared clay hearth, the remains of posts, and a large mass of fired clay that would have been a mud-plastered wall that baked in a fire. Large amounts of charcoal from burned wall supports and roof timbers were also present.
In 2017, investigators uncovered more of the house and discovered the remains of additional wall posts and a second hearth, or fire pit. This seemed strange, as having hearths in two different parts of the house would have been quite unusual. Radiocarbon dating of charcoal from the hearth revealed that the answer to this unusual appearance was that the hearth dated at least 200 years earlier (A.D.1355) than the burned wall. This discovery reveals that this site was occupied twice by Late Mississippian people, with two different houses superimposed on top of one another."
From the image description by ChattOconeeNF. (2017) Retrieved from https://www.flickr.com/photos/chatto...7648930293454/
The position of an archaeological find in relation to other finds on the site, including its associations, provenience, and matrix as well as what has happened to it since it was buried or placed on the ground.
The undisturbed position of a find after original deposition.
The position of an archaeological find that has been partially or wholly disturbed after its original deposition by human or natural activity.
Provenience is recording the exact three-dimensional location of the find. Horizontal location is usually measured relative to a geographical grid system. Vertical location is recorded as an elevation above or below sea level. The provenience provides information for the association and context as well as allows for later reconstruction of the site.
The location, horizontally and vertically, that the archaeological find was positioned on the site. Sometimes referred to provenance.
Association is the relationship of an archaeological find with the other artifacts found around it. It is based on the principle that an artifact is contemporary with other artifacts and features found near it...the same matrix. The artifacts found in a burial have an association with the human bones found in that same burial. As result, the artifacts can give archaeologists insight into the person's gender, status, occupation, and, ultimately, the culture of the time.
The relationship and position of an archaeological find to other artifacts and features that are in the same archaeological level at the site.
The matrix is the natural materials such as sediments surrounding that the artifact, ecofacts, and features. The soils, sands, gravel, or rock that are surrounding the object or feature can provide important information. Artifacts found in alluvial sediments, clay or silt deposited by rushing streams, could indicate that this it is not in the original place of deposit, but rather has been carried there by the water. This of course will affect the context of the find.
The natural materials, such as sediments, surrounding and enclosing the archaeological find in place.
When a site is looted or excavated by amateurs, the context of the artifact is lost even if the artifact is left behind. Excavation strips the site of much of its most important information, components that tell a fuller story of the object and the site, leaving behind an item with no story left to tell. Ideally, items found during an excavation are left in situ, which is Latin for “still,” meaning they are in their original place of deposition. This is why archaeologists tell you to leave any item you find, especially on public land, untouched no matter how tempting it is to pick it up, look at it, and put it in your pocket to show your friends!
When an archaeological find is left in the original place that it was found.
As previously mentioned, context at a site is critical to a full understanding of the archaeological data. Archaeologists need to understand the types of artifacts and sites they encounter. There are two phases that data undergo as they become archaeological remains. The first is the behavioral process, which is how remains can enter the archaeological record, and the transformational process, which is what happens to remains after they are deposited by humans.
Artifacts, ecofacts, and features are all the result of either deliberate or accidental human activity. This is known as the behavioral process, sometimes referred to as cultural formation process. Obviously, not all human behavior and practices produce archaeological evidence, however, many activities do. Those activities that produce material remains fit into four stages: acquisition, manufacture, use, and deposition. The stone materiel used in tool making is first gathered (acquisition), then fashioned into a tool (manufactured), used for hunting, and then either lost or discarded when broken (deposition). Likewise, food is gathered or hunted, prepared, eaten, and then the waste is discarded. All archaeological data is the result of the behavioral process and follow this same pattern, whether it is a single artifact, an ecofact, a feature, a structure, or a site.
Human activities and behavior, including acquisition, manufacture, use, and deposition, that provide tangible archaeological remains (Ashmore & Sharer, 2014). Sometimes referred to as cultural formation process.
Natural events, such as wind storms, floods, volcanic eruptions, organic decay, and even the effects of plant roots and animal burrowing, are known as transformational processes. Sometimes referred to as natural formation processes, these are the events and conditions that affect the material remains after it has been deposited until it has been found or uncovered. Human activity such as plowing and looting are a transformational process as well. When archaeologists understand what forces and events could have had an impact on the position of archaeological remains, they are better equipped to answer questions about whether marks on a bone came from animal gnawing or are signs of early human tool use and whether a collection of artifacts was deposited haphazardly or was affected by a mudslide. For organic remains, archaeologists look to the field of taphonomy, the study of what happens to organic remains (plant and animal) and the process of fossilization.
Conditions and events that affect archaeological data from the time of deposition to the time of recovery. Sometimes referred to natural formation process.
The study of what happens to organic remains (plant and animal) and the process of fossilization.
One very interesting type of transformational process is turbation in which objects are mixed together. There are many ways for the archaeological record to get mixed up. Examples include roots of plants and trees pushing artifacts away from their original positions called floralturbation. Burrowing animals can push artifacts up or down in the ground, known as faunalturbation. Climate can cause cryoturbation in areas where the ground goes through freeze/thaw cycles or agrilliturbation where wet/dry cycles in clay soils affect the position of archaeological remains. At various points during these cycles, the soil swells and deposited objects rise with the soil. When the soil shrinks, objects are pushed downward. Of course, gravity can also have an impact, especially on objects in wet substrates, and can easily move archaeological materials down a slope, away from their original place of deposition, which is known as graviturbation.
Mixing of soils or sediments.
Ashmore, W., & Sharer, R. J. (2014). Discovering our past: A brief introduction to archaeology. New York, N.Y: McGraw-Hill.
Figure 4.2.1 DSC04325. (2017). By ChattOconeeNF under CC BY 2.0 via flickr.
Figure 4.2.2 Excavations at the Edgewater Park Site, Coralville, Iowa. (2004). By Billwhittaker under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
A derivative work from
"Digging into Archaeology:A Brief OER Introduction to Archaeology with Activities" by Amanda Wolcott Paskey and AnnMarie Beasley Cisneros, Faculty (Anthropology) at Cosumnes River College & American River College, ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI), 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.