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Context is Everything

Introduction to the Concept

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An important concept in archaeology, and one that isn't given a lot of public attention until things go awry, is that of context.

Context, to an archaeologist, means the place where an artifact is found. Not just the place, but the soil, the site type, the layer the artifact came from, what else was in that layer. The importance of where an artifact is found is profound. A site, properly excavated, tells you about the people who lived there, what they ate, what they believed, how they organized their society. The whole of our human past, particularly prehistoric, but historic period too, is tied up in the archaeological remnants, and it is only by considering the entire package of an archaeological site that we can even begin to understand what our ancestors were about. Take an artifact out of its context and you reduce that artifact to no more than pretty. The information about its maker is gone.

Which is why archaeologists get so bent out of shape by looting, and why we are so sceptical when, say, a carved limestone box is brought to our attention by an antiques collector who says it was found somewhere near Jerusalem.

The following parts of this article are stories which attempt to explain the context concept, including how crucial it is to our understanding of the past, how easily it is lost when we glorify the object, and why artists and archaeologists don't always agree.

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