Where in the World is Single Context Archaeology (part 2)

Back in 2010 I posted about my previous initiation into Single Context methodology and used Google Wave to create a collectively edited map. Here is an excerpt of the original post:

Single context recording came to be 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.

I highly recommend going back and reading the comments on the old post, as it created a fantastic discussion. The old map was great as well, but Google Wave died–another one for the complete impermanence of online archaeology. A new comment on my old post spurred me back into action and I’ve started a new map that everyone can edit:

Where is single context archaeology?

If you have used single context somewhere in the world, can you take a moment to drop a pin on it and add the following information:

Project Name as Title: (if it had one)
Project Duration: (as close as you can get, say, 2002-2005)
Your name: (optional!)
Comments: (was it modified single context, etc)


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.

2 thoughts on “Where in the World is Single Context Archaeology (part 2)”

  1. Colleen, can you recommend a general discussion or introduction to single context recording? I’ve looked at the Museum of London manual, which is nice, but I have trouble imagining how I would implement this system with the kinds of sites and deposits I am used to. I have long been intrigued by this system, but I have never understood it very well, particularly in relationship to other systems of excavating and recording.

  2. Hi Mike,

    Sadly there is not a good general discussion or introduction as such–there may be one in Geoff Carver’s new methods book but I’ve been unable to get my hands on it. I also doubt the utility of describing it in writing; it’s been a dream of mine to first make a video showing the exact process and then start running field schools in the States on historic buildings to show the methodology.

    In sites where there is little soil differentiation it is also of limited use. Most of the paleo sites in the UK are dug in meters/spits, American style. But when there is architecture or any hint of stratigraphy it is indispensable.

    The explanation I can give you is far from satisfactory, and I hope very much to be able to properly illustrate the principles visually in a way that makes sense very soon. I’ve experimented a bit with time lapse and GIFs, but neither shows the entire process.

    In other words, watch this space. I’ll deliver on my threats someday!

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