Understanding Context in Archaeology

Introduction to the Concept of Context

Grottos at Cumbemayo

 Kelly Cheng / Getty Images 

An important concept in archaeology and one that isn't given a lot of public attention until things go awry is that of context.

Context, to an archaeologist, means the place where an artifact is found. Not just the place, but the soil, the site type, the layer the artifact came from, what else was in that layer. The importance of where an artifact is found is profound. A site, properly excavated, tells you about the people who lived there, what they ate, what they believed, how they organized their society. The whole of our human past, particularly prehistoric, but historic period too, is tied up in the archaeological remnants, and it is only by considering the entire package of an archaeological site that we can even begin to understand what our ancestors were about. Take an artifact out of its context and you reduce that artifact to no more than pretty. The information about its maker is gone.

Which is why archaeologists get so bent out of shape by looting, and why we are so skeptical when, say, a carved limestone box is brought to our attention by an antique collector who says it was found somewhere near Jerusalem.

The following parts of this article are stories that attempt to explain the context concept, including how crucial it is to our understanding of the past, how easily it is lost when we glorify the object, and why artists and archaeologists don't always agree.

An article by Romeo Hristov and Santiago Genovés published in the journal Ancient Mesoamerica made the international news in February 2000. In that very interesting article, Hristov and Genovés reported on the rediscovery of a tiny Roman art object recovered from a 16th-century site in Mexico.

The story is that in 1933, Mexican archaeologist Jose García Payón was excavating near Toluca, Mexico, at a site continuously occupied beginning somewhere between 1300-800 B.C. until 1510 A.D. when the settlement was destroyed by the Aztec emperor Moctecuhzoma Xocoyotzin (aka Montezuma). The site has been abandoned since that date, although some cultivation of nearby farm fields has taken place. In one of the burials located at the site, García Payón found what is now agreed to be a terracotta figurine head of Roman manufacture, 3 cm (about 2 inches) long by 1 cm (about a half-inch) across. The burials were dated on the basis of the artifact assemblage--this was before radiocarbon dating was invented, recall--as between 1476 and 1510 A.D.; Cortes landed at Veracruz Bay in 1519.

Art historians securely date the figurine head as having been made about 200 A.D.; thermoluminescence dating of the object provides a date of 1780 ± 400 b.p., which supports the art historian dating. After several years of banging his head on academic journal editorial boards, Hristov succeeded in getting Ancient Mesoamerica to publish his article, which describes the artifact and its context. Based on the evidence provided in that article, there seems to be no doubt that the artifact is a genuine Roman artifact, in an archaeological context that predates Cortes.

That is pretty darn cool, isn't it? But, wait, what exactly does it mean? Many stories in the news ran amok on this, stating that this is clear evidence for pre-Columbian trans-Atlantic contact between the Old and New Worlds: A Roman ship blown off course and run aground on the American shore is what Hristov and Genovés believe and that's certainly what the news stories reported. But is that the only explanation?

No, it's not. In 1492 Columbus landed on Watling Island, on Hispaniola, on Cuba. In 1493 and 1494 he explored Puerto Rico and the Leeward Islands, and he founded a colony on Hispaniola. In 1498 he explored Venezuela; in 1502 he reached Central America. You know, Christopher Columbus, pet navigator of Queen Isabella of Spain. You knew, of course, that there are numerous Roman-period archaeological sites in Spain. And you probably also knew that one thing the Aztecs were well known for was their incredible trading system, run by the merchant class of pochteca. The pochteca were an extremely powerful class of people in preColumbian society, and they were very interested in traveling to distant lands to find luxury goods to trade back home.

So, how hard is it to imagine that one of the many colonists dumped by Columbus on the American shores carried a relic from home? And that relic found its way into the trade network, and thence to Toluca? And a better question is, why is it so much easier to believe that a Roman ship was wrecked on the shores of the country, bringing the inventions of the west to the New World?

Not that this isn't a convoluted tale in and of itself. Occam's Razor, however, doesn't make the simplicity of expression ("A Roman ship landed in Mexico!" vs "Something cool collected from the crew of a Spanish ship or an early Spanish colonist got traded to the residents of the town of Toluca") criteria for weighing arguments.
But the fact of the matter is, a Roman galleon landing on the shores of Mexico would have left more than such a tiny artifact. Until we actually find a landing site or a shipwreck, I'm not buying it.

The news stories have long disappeared from the Internet, except for the one in the Dallas Observer called Romeo's Head that David Meadows was kind enough to point out. The original scientific article describing the find and its location can be found here: Hristov, Romeo and Santiago Genovés. 1999 Mesoamerican evidence of Pre-Columbian transoceanic contacts. Ancient Mesoamerica 10:207-213.

The recovery of a Roman figurine head from a late-15th/early-16th-century site near Toluca, Mexico is only interesting as an artifact if you know, without a doubt, that it came from a North American context prior to the conquest by Cortes.
This is why, on a Monday evening in February of 2000, you might have heard archaeologists all over North America screaming at their television sets. Many archaeologists love Antiques Roadshow. For those of you who haven't seen it, the PBS television show brings a group of art historians and dealers to various places in the world and invites residents to bring in their heirlooms for valuations. It's based on a venerable British version of the same name. While the shows have been described by some as get-rich-quick programs feeding into the booming western economy, they are entertaining to me because the stories associated with the artifacts are so interesting. People bring in an old lamp that their grandmother had been given as a wedding present and always hated, and an art dealer describes it as an art-deco Tiffany lamp. Material culture plus personal history; that's what archaeologists live for.

Unfortunately, the program turned ugly on the February 21st, 2000 show from Providence, Rhode Island. Three utterly shocking segments were aired, three segments that brought us all screaming to our feet. The first involved a metal detectorist who brought in the identification tags of enslaved people, which he had found when looting a site in South Carolina. In the second segment, a footed vase from a Precolumbian site was brought in, and the appraiser pointed out evidence that it had been recovered from a grave. The third was a stoneware jug, looted from a midden site by a guy who described excavating the site with a pickaxe. None of the appraisers said anything on television about the potential legalities of looting sites (particularly the international laws concerning the removal of cultural artifacts from central American graves) let alone the wanton destruction of the past, instead of putting a price on the goods and encouraging the looter to find more.

The Antiques Roadshow was deluged with complaints from the public, and on their website, they issued an apology and a discussion of the ethics of vandalism and looting.

Who owns the past? I ask that every day of my life, and hardly ever is the answer a guy with a pickaxe and spare time on his hands.

"You idiot!" "You moron!"

As you can tell, it was an intellectual debate; and like all discussions where the participants secretly agree with each other, it was well-reasoned and polite. We were arguing in our favorite museum, Maxine and I, the art museum on the university campus where we both worked as clerk typists. Maxine was an art student; I was just starting in archaeology. That week, the museum announced the opening of a new display of pots from around the world, donated by the estate of a world-traveling collector. It was irresistible to us two groupies of historical art, and we took a long lunch to go take a peek.

I still remember the displays; room after room of fabulous pots, of all sizes and all shapes. Many, if not most, of the pots were ancient, pre-Columbian, classic Greek, Mediterranean, Asian, African. She went one direction, I went another; we met in the Mediterranean room.

"Tsk," said I, "the only provenience given on any of these pots is the country of origin."

"Who cares?" said she. "Don't the pots speak to you?"

"Who cares?" I repeated. "I care. Knowing where a pot comes from gives you information about the potter, his or her village and lifestyle, the things that are really interesting about it."

"What are you, nuts? Doesn't the pot itself speak for the artist? All you really need to know about the potter is right here in the pot. All his hopes and dreams are represented here."

"Hopes and dreams? Give me a break! How did he--I mean SHE--earn a living, how did this pot fit into society, what was it used for, that's not represented here!"

"Look, you heathen, you don't understand art at all. Here you are looking at some of the most wonderful ceramic vessels in the world and all you can think of is what the artist had for dinner!"

"And," I said, stung, "the reason these pots have no provenience information is because they were looted or at least bought from looters! This display supports looting!"

"What this display supports is reverence for things of all cultures! Somebody who's never had exposure to Jomon culture can come in here and marvel at the intricate designs, and wander out a better person for it!"

We may have been raising our voices slightly; the curator's assistant seemed to think so when he showed us the exit.

Our discussion continued on the tiled patio in front, where things probably got slightly warmer, although perhaps it's best not to say.

"The worst state of affairs is when science begins to concern itself with art," shouted Paul Klee.

"Art for art's sake is the philosophy of the well-fed!" retorted Cao Yu.

Nadine Gordimer said "Art is on the side of the oppressed. For if art is freedom of the spirit, how can it exist within the oppressors?"

But Rebecca West rejoined, "Most works of art, like most wines, ought to be consumed in the district of their fabrication."

The problem has no easy resolution, for what we know about other cultures and their pasts is because the elite of western society poked their noses into places they had no business being. It's a plain fact: we can't hear other cultural voices unless we translate them first. But who says members of one culture have a right to understand another culture? And who can argue that we all aren't morally obligated to try?

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Hirst, K. Kris. "Understanding Context in Archaeology." ThoughtCo, Sep. 6, 2020, thoughtco.com/context-in-archaeology-167155. Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, September 6). Understanding Context in Archaeology. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/context-in-archaeology-167155 Hirst, K. Kris. "Understanding Context in Archaeology." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/context-in-archaeology-167155 (accessed March 31, 2023).