Where is Single Context Archaeology?

When I first walked onto site at Çatalhöyük in 2006, I felt pretty confident of my excavation abilities.  While I wasn’t an old field hand, I had more excavation experience than most grad students and had worked as a professional archaeologist as well.  To my great chagrin, I found out that I knew worse than nothing, in fact, I had to unlearn almost everything I knew about excavation and restart from scratch.

This was my first exposure to single context recording.  Most archaeologists in the Americas have never heard of such a thing, and even if they have, they have no idea what it actually means or how to do it.  Single context recording was in the 1970s in the UK, in part by Ed Harris, the man who gave us the Harris Matrix–a way to represent archaeological relationships in 2-D.  For a more detailed description of what single context recording is, there’s no better place to start than the MoLAS archaeological site manual. While there has been some discussion of its limitations in envisioning archaeology (and comparisons to a kind of mechanization/industrialist capitalization strategy), it both empowers individual archaeologists to form their own interpretations of the stratigraphy (contra the box/baulk method where a supervisor comes every once in a while to inspect the section that was excavated by the students or workmen) and provides a detailed plan view of the archaeology.

After learning single context recording, it was often difficult to see some of the architecture being excavated by Americanist archaeologists in squares or trenches.  The most heinous is generally the Mesoamerican houses and temple complexes that have been taken to pixel-bits with squares all at different phases. It is generally taboo to criticize excavation strategy, but it is sad to hear these archaeologists describe their finds and samples taken from these insecure contexts.  True, money is often an issue, but if you cannot excavate a site properly, perhaps it is better not to open the earth at all?

So, needless to say, I am a convert.  Single context recording is truly the gold standard of excavation methodology for architecture and complex stratigraphy and can be tough to learn.  A quote overheard by Dan Eddisford: “We no longer strictly promote single context recording on the site as it requires too great a level of professionalism from our staff.”  Would that a higher level of professionalism would be attainable by field hands who are chronically underpaid and underappreciated.

Anyway, this is a long introduction to the real topic at hand: what sites use single context recording?  I know that many of my friends work in far-flung places, but I’d like to keep a record to counter the many criticisms I receive from my New World colleagues who insist that using single context would hopelessly marginalize their work.

Also: I found a use for Google Wave! Finally!  I found that you can create collaboratively edited maps! So if you have excavated anywhere in the world using single context recording, please make your mark here:

Single Context Google Wave Map

If you do not feel like messing around with Google Wave, then please leave me a comment on this post or email me at clmorgan at berkeley.edu.

Author: colleenmorgan

Dr. Colleen Morgan (ORCID 0000-0001-6907-5535) is the Lecturer in Digital Archaeology and Heritage in the Department of Archaeology at the University of York. She conducts research on digital media and archaeology, with a special focus on embodiment, avatars, genetics and bioarchaeology. She is interested in building archaeological narratives with emerging technology, including photography, video, mobile and locative devices. Through archaeological making she explores past lifeways and our current understanding of heritage, especially regarding issues of authority, authenticity, and identity.

19 thoughts on “Where is Single Context Archaeology?”

  1. Seems that the link to the google wave map is not working… or at least it tells me I am not a participant in the Wave

  2. Sachsen (Saxony), so far as I know, is the only part of Germany where it is (or was, last time I was there) standard. A large number of British archaeologists were brought in to dig that way in late 1994. Sven Schuette tried to introduce SCR to Cologne in the 1990s, and as far as I know that’s the only example where it was introduced and then turned down (due to politics more than anything).
    Otherwise, Carendini is supposed to have made it standard in Italy, it’s supposed to be widespread in Spain, now standard in France, and I have read reports of its use in urban excavations in the Czech Republic.

  3. In Italy, it’s somehow required by Soprintendenza for each excavation to provide the entire dataset of record sheets. It’s a (much overrated) standard for Italian archaeologists, with lots of local variants. I say overrated because everything that goes beyond excavation technique is largely missing (e.g. reflexive methods like those used at Catal Hoyuk).

  4. Surely single context recording as such has had its day; it does indeed provide data that works well for a 2D schematic representation of a site – but when GIS systems can do far more by way of representation and can be ubiquitous for archaeologists, data entry is no longer bound to sheets of paper, and sites are almost invariably not coherent archaeological entities, surely a straight spatial store of what is found during excavation is far more useful. Particularly as a record of the site for the future…

  5. “GIS systems can do far more by way of representation and can be ubiquitous for archaeologists.”
    Well, yes. But your “can” doesn’t reflect reality. It is more usual here in Germany to use some variant on composite plans (the “Planum Method”) and, as I was once told, a database only doubles your work load (then again, I’m not officially an archaeologist because I didn’t study Latin). GIS is largely still limited to use in state services for predictive modelling; you might find CAD if you’re lucky, and even the Harris Matrix less often.

    1. @Colleen – sorry, my comment might be taking the comment stream a little OT…

      @geoff – you know me, I’m about future not the now; archaeology does not stay still, like any investigative pursuit it continues to evolve, using new tools and techniques. Just maybe archaeology moves a little slower :)

      @Daniel E – no idea, I’m a strategic information system specialist, not an archaeologist (not even a Latin-less one ;) ); but I look at the information stream that archaeology produces and I ask questions. And for me single context recording seems to have been an answer to the archaeology recording question that was answered in the light of the tools available. It seems the new tools have brought new possibilities. In the age of the Internet and email, would you invent the telegraph and the telegram?

      So the question for archaeologists is – in the age of computerised information systems, handheld GPS, ubiquitous GIS and all the other tools now available, and presented with a clean sheet (or screen!), would you invent SCR or something else? I guess you would also have to first answer the question “is the monograph the definitive record of an archaeological excavation?” to help set the scene for your response.

  6. Google wave seems to refuse letting me participate, so I just say it in a comment:
    I’m working for a district archaeology service in Southern Germany, and we use a variant of single context recording, entering data into context sheets, and since last year into data bases as well. All mapping is done using a state-wide GIS system. As the state service’s records officer did his studies in britain, it was somehow logical for him to introduce a british system…

  7. We have been doing SCR since the mid 80s and now record everything into a GIS. It’s a perfect relationship, although how we implement SCR today is different to how we did it then.

  8. Sorry if this is a stupid question but is this just a generic term for use of the Harris Matrix? (Yes I am an unwashed North American…) I looked at the MoL document not sure if it just meant to enable Harris Matrix as output or if it is fundamentally different than normal “natural layer” excavation. Anyway, if the former you’ll find it used around 1980 at the Hoko River site in Washington State, which is a deep shell midden, a site type with notoriously complex and discontinuous stratigraphy:



  9. Hi Colleen
    An interesting thread. A view from Museum of London, with a bit of background for those not familiar with SCR..

    We generally carry out single context recording on excavation because of the super abundance of complex stratigraphy that is habitually encountered on urban sites. The site excavation methodology is also termed single context planning, since the planning of contexts and specifically their spatial impingement on each other is invaluable information when checking and aggregating the smallest practical referable site entity (the context) into interpretative groups, (in our terminology, sub-groups, groups and land uses). A good source for why we do this and how SCR/SCP came about in London due to the time-pressure caused by the rise of developer funding of excavation is well documented by Spence in Practices of Archaeological Stratigraphy’ Harris et al Eds 1993. Indeed that volume is a good take on international stratigraphic practice in the early 90’s.

    I said we ‘generally’ use SCR, because we do encountered sites where there is no definable straigraphy, for example the layers of undifferentiated prehistoric peats containing worked flint and other human debris. With no definable stratigraphy you have to engineer your stratigraphic control through an applied excavation method. Typically this will mean excavation by spit of pre-determined depth within a grid which provides vertical and horizontal control respectively.

    However to dig in such a fashion where there is a definable straigraphy, is to ignore what Martin Carver once termed the only unequivocal information that an archaeological site yields. Planum techniques obscure – generally completely – the relative relationship between contexts, while composite plans made on site instead of single context plans, similarly render the unequivocal equivocal, since they merge the individual entity into an interpretative snapshot which may or may not be valid archaeologically. Moreover if it is not, it is dam hard to re-interpret.

    Like John, we use GIS in our post-excavation, and have been doing so since the mid 90’s and we consider it a very useful relationship. Before doing this however we used the concept and the discipline of single context recording as the basis for the data architecture of the relational database we use for all archaeological data. Indeed when we came to unite the digital planning effort with the data-based work of the specialist teams to create our first GIS environment, the only substantial modification made was to record the relationship between planned and unplanned contexts. This is because on site we plan pits, walls, unbounded fills plus other special context types, but many contexts are not planned since they are defined by their container, (what Harris termed a ‘basin of deposition’). Thus the three fills (contexts 93, 94 and 95) of a pit (context 96), will all reference context 96 as their planned context.

    Finally to offer an observation on Chris’ question. Firstly all excavators ought to be stratigraphic specialists, so they can recognise stratigraphy when they see it, know how to excavate it and know the best way to maintain straigraphic control in its absence. It is not a sub-discipline for the competent site archaeologist, it is the perquisite (which is why Dan Eddisford’s comment is a bit sad). Indeed we teach school children the fundamentals during national Archaeology day in the UK

    Secondly, I think Chris has a point when it comes to the site method of single context planning where (in London) hand drawn plans are still made on the basis of an implemented grid. True there are cleverer ways of doing this and we have done most of them, total stations and survey grade GPS, (navigation or mapping grade being too imprecise) linked to all manner of loggers, pen computers, and PDAs. For us the issues here are more practical; reliability/cost of kit, battery life, training, reception site access and the duration of the excavation.

    However in answer to the central question of whether in this day and age we would invent SCR for the excavation or something else, I would say no we wouldn’t. We would and do try and improve the manner of ‘recording’ the single contexts, (anyone for wireless loggers providing pro-formas which then poke images and data directly into systems, real-time up dates from specialists assessments of context content to re-inform the excavation, 3D scanners capturing location, colour and an indication of context density etc..). But here’s the thing, the recording of the context is what is done once it has been found, delineated and in general identified. That’s the skill which is essentially archaeological and human.


  10. I’ve debated Chris on a number of subjects before (although I agree with him on where I’d like archaeology to go, I’m very pessimistic about chances of getting there in some places). Murmel, I assume, is referring to David Bibby in B-W. Here in Rheinland we’re using something called the “Stellenkartsystem” which combines everything in a chronologically ordered list: sketches, cross-references to drawings and photos, info on the process (cut out west half of pit, prepared profile, photographed profile, drew profile, collected finds, etc.). A bit of a nightmare, but sort of suited to the fact that excavations here are and have traditionally been done by long-term unemployed or (now) students with little or no archaeological training. And I have argued that SCP is not possible when one person digs, someone else draws, someone else takes the photos, someone else writes the descriptions, etc., and few of the archaeologists see the need for building a database (other than fulfilling contractual obligations) because they don’t really foresee doing much (if any) analysis. And GIS and CAD? Digital-only documentation was ruled out on the N-S U-Bahn project in Cologne, labelled the largest construction project in Europe at the time. It was argued that the archives had no way to store or integrate digital information with their existing paper-based archives. Then again, the director was rumoured to need someone to edit monthly site reports from archaeological jargon (areas, features, etc.) into something more “art historical.” And given that the construction companies tried to blame cost overruns on archaeology, that situation is not going to improve any time soon, and the situation will actually probably get worse before it gets better (pressure on to cut corners even more: a couple of years ago I heard a lecture where the use of sieves to find small artifacts was extolled, as though this was an amazing new invention). After all, given that the city archives fell into a hole and it has now turned out that someone might have sold over 80% of the iron that was supposed to reinforce the tunnels… no surprise, then, that health and safety issues were such a low priority.
    qmackie: the Hoko site is in Harris’s “Practices” book. SCP goes a little farther.

  11. In 2003, a friend of mine from the UK helped me put together a field-school of sorts for high school students in Western Quebec, where we use SCR on the site of a 19th century brickyard. A very basic affair, but as we had no coin, context sheets and planning boards worked quite well enough.

  12. Hi colleen,

    I can’t add much to Pete’s comprehensive post about SCR in the UK. He is right to distinguish between Single Context Recording and the slightly less ubiquitous Single Context Planning. In my experience commercial companies that don’t do much urban archaeology are more likely to cut corners and skip the single context planning bit. A mistake in my opinion.

    I have also used SCR on projects in Reykjavik – Iceland, Crustomerium – Italy, and Butrint – Albania, all of which were influenced to some degree by UK techniques, when not run by UK archaeologists.

    I’m somewhat surprised that it is not more commonly used worldwide. Training and skill levels are less of an issue than you might think. I’ve supervised groups of completely novice local community groups on fairly large scale excavations using the SCR system. It’s hard work, but not impossible.

  13. We introduced it to Lebanon in 1994 and it is being used by the Directorate of Antiquities as the basis of their recording system. I introduced it into the Central Archaeology Service of English Heritage in 1993 and also a variant of it to the Leicester Archaeology unit in 1990

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