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More than Just a Pretty Face: Context in Archaeology

In order for us to get a clearer picture of our human history, we need to look at more than just the objects dug out of the ground. We can gather a vast amount of information from an object, yes. But this knowledge is only a fraction to what can be deciphered if we take the context that it was found into account. Oftentimes, without context can lead to a false interpretation altogether.

Context refers to the material surrounding an artefact, the matrix, as well as the exact vertical and horizontal location within this surrounding area, the provenience. Objects have very different meanings and functions based on where and how they were found, which is vital to understand the society it came from.

This is one of the reasons that looting is so damaging. Once an object leaves the earth, that scenario can never be recreated, and the site is changed forever. Looting creates what is called a secondary context, which archaeologists must be extremely aware of, as not noticing a tampering with the site can skew the interpretation results greatly. This counts for both modern and ancient looting, as well as natural forces that could have interfered with the objects.

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American Antiquity, Vol. 37, No. 2. (Apr., 1972), pp. 156-165.

Context is Everything- What Does Context Mean to Archaeologists? – Introduction to the Concept of Context. K. Kris Hirst


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