Archaeology is a precise science, or likes to think it is. Archaeologist Harry Roskams, on his knees, puzzled over his context. An archaeologist’s ‘context’ is a layman’s ‘layer’. Each context represents a phase of human activity; it could be a floor in use for decades, or a ten-minute hole-filling job. Harry’s context was small and dark grey, and decidedly M-shaped with clearly defined edges. This was good. A context is defined by variations in colour and consistency which separate it from its neighbours. This can be a real bugger. Archaeologists lean heavily on Professor Albert H. Munsell’s (1858-1918) colour classification charts in an effort to distinguish one grey-brown from another. It drives them mad and blind. Harry was having no such difficulty with his dark grey ‘M’. He’d lent his Munsell book to some other poor sod earlier in the day. Haha! Let them fret and fume over contexts without edges. Contexts don’t often lie helpfully on top of one another, in clear sequence, like a layer cake. We wish! No, they will overlap at one edge, and be overlapped at another, or, often, punch holes in and take slices out of each other. It’s a mess. Harry’s ‘M’ suffered no such entanglements. With silent glee he took his trowel by its blade for greater control, like an oil painter doing fine detail, and deftly flicked away the remains of the tedious beige context which obscured it. This would be sieved by bored undergraduates and discarded. Archaeology is destruction! Each context is numbered, mapped and logged. It is assigned a place in a ‘Harris matrix’, which resembles a large flowchart or family tree. The matrix is supposed to fix the sequence of every context on the site. This is important for dating.
Dating, dating…..Harry’s mind wandered as he worked. The laymen thought it was so easy! Harry snorted at the thought. We rely upon sound method and datable finds; the smallest pot sherd, bead or coin embedded in a context. This lends it a terminus post quem the “limit after which”; the earliest possible date of the context, which knocks on, through the matrix, to all the contexts that post-date it. Beautiful. Harry’s thoughts darkened at the memory of the kitkat wrapper which had given an entire Iron Age hillfort a terminus post quem of 1986. They had chosen to disregard it. “Carried down by worm action” they had written in their notes, solemnly. Harry sighed, as had the Neolithic man who had occupied the exact same spot 6000 years previously. Knapping flint tools, discarding the dark grey offcuts until they had built up around and between his folded legs in the shape of an ‘M’, in an alphabet as yet uninvented. That’s how Harry interpreted it, correctly, though forever unproven. What is more, that’s almost exactly how another archaeologist, standing on the same spot, interpreted Harry’s own knee prints and trowelings, later, thousands of years later.
Ben Hall © 2008