Not Just a Pile of Bones

Context is very important. Context is especially important to archaeology and the study of artifacts. Without context, the artifacts have no meaning, a piece of glass is just a piece of glass, and a plate is a plate. If we don’t know where an item was found and what it is in relationship to the site and the site’s past then it means nothing.


Is this just a pile of bones? or with context could this mean much more?

For instance, a bunch of cow bones is just a pile of animal bones, until we factor in that it was found in the dump site of an 17th century pub and inn, and the cut marks on the bone shows that it was hand sawn and the cut of meat that it was shows the socioeconomic class that the people who ate the cow were in, and therefore reveals the people whom the pub catered to. Any other bones can do the same thing. Different fish are found in different areas, and different people and social classes eat certain kinds of fish. By finding a particular fishes bones in the inn we know that they fed and whom they traded with, as well as at that time, and what was available to them. Bones, as well as many other artifacts, such as plates and ceramic bowls, can be very useful in finding this type of information out, but only if there is context and background.

for this to mean anything, we would have to know the where, and what and who

for this to mean anything, we would have to know the where, what and who

The different patterns on plates can tell us if they were decorative or used in every day life. The type of style and skill that went into the plates can also tell us how they were used, when they were used, and who used them. The same goes for ceramic bowls, for if only the outside was decorated, that means that it was a larger bowl or vase, with a smaller opening on the top, or that it was meant for other people to look at, while decorations on the inside means that it was small or meant for more personal use. Still, context is very important. If this was found in the inn, then we know what it was used for, and if they were nice plates and bowls, what types of people they housed.

This idea of context can also be applied to where in the site it was found. Many hours are spent labeling the bags where the artifacts have been placed, with detailed locations of where the artifacts were found, at what test pit, with a unit number and other specific location identifiers. Location is very important to context and the meaning of an artifact, for if bones were found in the dumping site of a house, then they would mean a totally different thing then if they were associated with a barn or pub.

In general, artifacts aren’t just pieces of pottery, or a pile of bones, they are items and objects that, because of context, lend themselves to a bigger picture and a better understanding of our world.


A Discarded History

Archaeological dig

this is not what it is always about.

Archaeology is not about finding an object. It is not about an object at all. Archaeology is about finding the story behind the object, the history of the person who made it, owned it, or took care of it. The artifacts mean nothing if there is no context. Without this context, you would not understand the past or the lives of the people throughout history.

If you were trying to find out about a culture, a tribe, a family or a single individual, where would you look? Do not look in the most obvious places, where you know you are guaranteed to find something, or you know what it is you will find. Look places that you would never have though of looking, or where maybe the treasure isn’t (if there is any) because the real treasure is finding something that tells you about the person or people that you would have never know before, something about their “secret lives”. This could be anything, what they did when they are not being watched by the authorities, or by their neighbors. A hobby, a skill, or a lover can be discovered. A stereotype can be broken. Something about a culture could be found, that you never thought could be possible.

When a person or a tribe moves a place, they don’t leave what is important to them, they leave what they think they don’t need, that they can survive without, that they find unimportant. But this is just as useful in discovering the past, because by knowing what they didn’t need, we find out just as much about them then knowing what they brought with them. Looking in doorways, where people drop items out of their bags or pockets, or trashcans and dump sites, can be just as important as looking in a temple or a grave. Both in modern and ancient times, surveying or excavating a place where people might leave things behind, discard items, or not be in the public view, you get a sneak peak into the real, unfiltered life of someone.


why would he leave something so important behind?

I think this is what I have really taken away from my learning and increased knowledge about archaeology. That it is the little things that count, the artifacts that tell you something about someone that maybe they didn’t want to be known, or finding something that breaks assumptions, changes stereotypes, changes peoples opinions about a culture. I think from now on I will see archaeology as a way to find things about the past, so we can better help the present and future. Archaeology is finding artifacts that explain a different outlook than the written records, providing a deeper insight into the public’s perception of what happened. With archaeology you can reevaluate history and change peoples perspectives.

Laila Blumenthal-Rothchild

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