Take Only Pictures: The Importance of Context in Archaeology

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Context is a very, very important concept in archaeology. Unfortunately, it is also one that most people are not very familiar with. Context is the place where an artifact is found, Not just the place but the type of soil, the site type, and what the artifact was found with or in relation to. I always emphasize this concept when speaking with adults and children about archaeology. The example I always use is a person’s bedroom. If you were to step into a stranger’s bedroom what would you be able to learn about them? By looking at the items in the room, within their context, you might be able to figure out the gender, age, interests and other unique aspects of that individual. However, if you were to take those objects out of that room, one by one, and look at them separately you may come up with very different answer regarding who that person is.

This is one primary reason that it is considered a bad thing, and in many cases illegal, to take artifacts from an archaeological site.  The object itself can give us some information, but most of the information that archaeologists gather from a site comes from the context of those objects. If everybody were to visit a site and take one artifact each, soon there would be nothing left for us to study. Additionally, because archaeology is a destructive science, and we can never put things back the same after they have been excavated or taken, the context is destroyed and vast amounts of information have potentially been lost. This is the main reason that archaeologists are so tedious in their efforts to record everything. We take photographs, notes, drawings and various other records to ensure that we can learn everything there is to learn about that site.

Archaeology studies the physical evidence from past cultures that has survived a long time buried in the ground. This physical evidence provides us a direct-although fragmentary- link with the past.  The objects, or artifacts, that we recover can’t “speak for themselves”, but instead they must be interpreted by archaeologists. The process of interpreting these objects must be done carefully and can be a painstaking process. As part of that process archaeologists try to make associations between various artifacts in order to better understand a site. An archaeological site is similar to a puzzle. We put the objects and features of the site together to tell the story of the archaeological site. Have you ever gotten to the end of a puzzle only to find that you are missing one or more pieces leaving you with an incomplete picture?  When visiting an archaeological site, do your part to leave archaeologists with all the puzzle pieces necessary to gain a complete understanding of that site. Enjoy the site, and remember the old motto, “leave only footprints and take only pictures”, and in doing so you will provide archaeologists with the context needed to understand the past!

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