ABOUT THIS PROJECT (Home)
CONVERSATIONS ABOUT THE PAST
This carved shell "cameo" was found in the slave quarters of this plantation, and was made by one of the people who lived there. See "Shell Carver's Cabin" for more details.
Any material that was made, modified, utilized or transported, by past human behavior.
On one level, context is the three-dimensional association of artifacts and features on an archaeological site. It is THE most important thing that archaeologists study it is context, more than anything else, that enables archaeologists to learn about past human behavior. Individual artifacts do not have "meaning" unless they are understood in association with the artifacts, soil, geography, climate and other things in which they are embedded. Context in this sense also refers to "artifact contexts" which an mean looking at objects in association with other artifacts, or sometimes it can mean looking at areas in which few, or no,artifacts exist. See Shadows for an example of this.
However, in a larger sense, context also includes all of the people who work on the site, or on materials from the site. This includes surveyors, excavators, specialists, historians, artists, computer operators, photographers, videographers and ethnographers and their beliefs and assumptions, the historical and cultural milieus in which they live, and the methods and techniques that they use to work. For a fuller description of how these kinds of contexts can be incorporated into archaeological method, see notes from a paper given by Ian Hodder, one of the first proponents of what has come to be known as contextual postprocessual archaeology (Hodder 1997) (48).
There are many, many definitions of culture, but sometimes it is useful to think of it in terms of its characteristics, rather than as a definition. The following characteristics of cultural behavior are the ones that tend to be the most useful to archaeologists they depend on each other, even though they differ from each other in important ways.
Culture is LEARNED that is, we learn the rules about what to do within our culture from each other. We arent born with these behaviors, but, rather, we are born with an ability to learn them. We dont need to burn our fingers to know that fire is hot we can learn it from each other. Some anthropologists disagree, and think that some cultural characteristics are inherited, not learned. See (Chagnon 1979) (19) for an example of this position.
Culture is PATTERNED We tend to do the same things again and again, and, within cultural groups, we tend to use the same kinds of objects for the same kinds of activities. Within Western industrialized cultures, for example, people tend to store certain kinds of things in certain places in their homes toilets go in bathrooms, pots and pans go in kitchens, beds go in bedrooms, and so on. We can predict, when we go into someones home, that the pots and pans probably wont be stored in the bathtub, because we are members of the same culture. This is the kind of PATTERN that, if we know something about the culture, enables us to start to reconstruct behavior from the artifacts that remain after the people are no longer there to tell us what they mean.
Culture is SHARED If we decorate something a certain way a pot, for example but other people dont understand why we have done so, the behavior may be interesting, artistic, and so on, but is probably going to be very difficult to interpret by archaeologists. This is not to say that archaeologists do not have an interest in individual behavior they do, and the study of "agency" is a very important one within archaeology. But behaviors that are shared are the ones that archaeologists can begin to understand most easily, even if they are only shared by a few people.
Culture is CUMULATIVE it builds on itself. Consider, for example, at the car. It "evolved", gradually, from buggies and horses the first name for the car was the "horseless carriage". With the exception of very few totally new inventions, most things that we use are just newer, slightly different versions of the things we used before. The way they are at any given time is the result of minor changes made over a very long period of time. This is very useful to archaeologists, who can sometimes see these changes as they look at cultural materials that were deposited over a period of time.
WHY IS THE STUDY OF PAST CULTURE IMPORTANT?
At the most basic level, culture is what enables human beings to survive in the world. We dont have a lot of other things that help us do this, in comparison to other animals we arent that large, we dont have fur to keep us warm, our teeth and jaws are quite small, and we cant run that fast! But because of the shared, learned, patterned, and cumulative characteristics of culture, we can learn (and, more importantly, teach our children) how to find food, clothe and protect ourselves, so our species does survive. These kinds of strategies frequently develop over long periods of time, and sometimes include some very "big" inventions such as agriculture, irrigation, and warfare. Many archaeologists choose to focus on these kinds of questions on the adaptive processes that cause cultures to change over long periods of time.
But culture is also important in more local, personal ways. Learning more about the tremendous diversity of past and present human cultures can give us insights in how we live today to get along better, to understand what made us what we are today, and so on. Therefore, some archaeologists prefer to look at the individual ways that a given culture, or groups within a culture, lived. These archaeologists usually feel that it is important to acknowledge the roles of individuals, or groups of individuals, within the larger culture (such as women and men, children, members of different ethnic groups, etc.), and often focus their study on these particular groups or individuals. They are less interested in making general, large scale comparisons between cultures, and are frequently interested in very specific kinds of questions such as how people used objects in ritual, religion, social life, politics and so on, and how they created meaning in the objects they used. They do sometimes ask questions that have to do with survival, but they do so in terms of specific groups at certain points in time and space.
Archaeology has plenty of room for both kinds of archaeologists, and the answers to both kinds of questions can influence the decisions we make about how to live today. What makes us the same, and what makes us different both are legitimate kinds of questions about human life. The Jordan Plantation archaeological project is an example of the second type of research we are interested in knowing how the African and African-American people who lived on this site lived and worked, and we are also interested in how they interacted with and influenced the larger, "dominant" white planter culture.
These would be artifacts that someone would presumably take with them upon leaving a place, a site, a room, or whatever. They would be things of some value (personal, sentimental, spiritual, material, etc.) to the person who used them.
DECOMPOSITION PROCESSES (PRESERVATION, FORMATION PROCESSES)
There are many factors which affect the way an artifact survives, or does not, after it goes into the ground and becomes part of the archaeological record. These include climate, the material the artifact is made of, soil conditions, and many, many other factors. For information about these processes, see any basic archaeological text one good one is Archaeology: Theories, Methods and Practice, by Colin Renfrew and Paul Bahn. See Chapter 2: What is left? The Variety of the Evidence", p. 41 - 60. (27)
Generally speaking, these are the remains of animals found in an excavation bone, feathers, skin, etc. Studying faunal remains can help archaeologists determine many things about diet, occupation, and other aspects of human life..
An artifact that cannot be removed, intact, from an archaeological site that is, its original three dimensional context cannot be preserved, if it is moved. It could be, for example, a hearth, or a brick wall, which would have to be disassembled to be moved. Or, it can be an assemblage of different artifacts that belong together. For an example of a feature in the latter sense, see the description of the "curer's kit" in "Curers Cabin".
The study of history-writing, or, to put it another way, the history of history. For example, if someone were to write about what sorts of things historians have written about slavery since the Civil War, that would be an "historiography".
See "culture is patterned", above.
Any physical location that has been altered by human activity. It is NOT defined as "the place that archaeologists dig", nor is it necessarily "a place where people lived" (although it can be that, of course).
HOME * Conversations * Words * Archaeology * History * Ethnography * Community * Media * Descendants
& others * People in the Past * Kids * Bibliography * Definitions * Links * Maps * Search * Table of
For information about this site or this project, contact or .
‹ Carol McDavid 1998