The Context of Context: My attempt at objectivity.

Posted on November 11, 2008

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I exchanged emails with an archaeologist colleague that made me pause to think about context.  In my blog I often use a tongue in cheek approach that might sometimes make it sound like I don’t entirely sympathize with the archaeological establishment.  Truth is, I don’t.

I don’t sympathize with any establishment.  You can’t sympathize with an establishment; you can only sympathize with people.  And as a general principle, I try not to take prepackaged ideologies for granted.  And I especially don’t pick a side when I don’t think the division into sides is productive.

So in the whole “Archaeological Establishment v. Musems and Collectors” debacle, I try to just report, maybe comment, and otherwise try to stay out of the way so I don’t get hit by flying mud.  There are aspects of the debate, however, that I have firm opinions on, and one of them is context.

I’ll say this.  Context is an invaluable thing.  As to the discrete universe of every archaeological object, context is a extremely limited resource.  When an object is improperly excavated (or ripped out of the ground by looters), that resource is wasted.  No one gets the benefit of it, and it is gone forever.  I believe it is valuable to know about our collective past, from both an intellectual and psychological standpoint, and believe that context undoubtedly gives us knowledge about our past.

Yes, a coin might be on top of a pile of garbage, but one of my stronger memories from my undergraduate work in archaeology was learning about shell middens.  Those are just piles of refuse (and junky, fishy piles of refuse at that), and invaluable for dating and determining resources and diets of ancient peoples.  (Compare Context Lost–So What? by Peter Tompa.)

For these reasons, I support initiatives to minimize loss of context through improper excavation and looting.  What I do not do, however, is mince this goal with the goal of protecting creator cultures from the loss of their history.  Nor do I assume that the current approaches to stemming improper excavation naturally and directly correspond to either goal.

I am still early in my career and in my understanding of all these issues, and that is one of the reasons I try to take a more objective view of the debate.  I hope that this effort will help me in the future to contribute positive suggestions that go beyond sustaining a status quo or preventing the “other side” from gaining ground.


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