Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Happy publication day! Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis has been published by the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. It’s a collaboration between Daniel Eddisford and I and reflects long conversations we’ve had while working (and living and raising a child) together. It takes archaeological site management, something that is always conceived of as rigidly hierarchical, and tries to reimagine it through more egalitarian means. Conveniently, we found that single context methodology actually lends itself well to a flat management structure. Sadly we also found that recent erosion of autonomy and craftspersonship in archaeological fieldwork has contributed to the neoliberalization of the profession.

If you are one of those Mortimer Wheeler military campaign-types, this is probably not for you, but it has a snip from a big old-school Harris Matrix made out of political leaflets and some Çatalhöyük gossip, so it might be worth a look.

Single Context Archaeology as Anarchist Praxis

Also available HERE as an uncorrected proof.

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)

Thanks!

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.