Saturday, November 15, 2008

How to be an Archaeologist: Context Sheets Part One

It was probably Sir Mortimer Wheeler (or some other famous archaeologist with an impressive moustache) who once said: “Archaeology is an experiment that can only be conducted once.”
Or something profound and pessimistic like that anyway. Whatever the case, the point is that, despite being informative and educational and what-have-you, the business of archaeology is incredibly destructive. To get down to all that interesting stuff involving Romans and Vikings and mediaeval monks etc., centuries of less exciting stuff, such as soil and sand and clay, has to be removed, heaped up into a pile and then chucked willy-nilly back into the hole, making one hell of a mess for future excavators who might actually be interested in those layers that we find terminally dull and hard work to dig through, because, who knows, we might well be missing something important in our current state of archaeological ignorance.
I think it was Mortimer Wheeler who said that.
Or was it Geoffrey Wheeler?
Then again, Geoffrey Wheeler might have been the bloke who used to present Top of the Form. (By ’eck! I’m showing me age now lad that’s f’ sure.”)
Whatever, here’s a photograph of Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his impressive trained moustache.
Or is that Terry Thomas?

(Get on with it! You’re starting to annoy me now! Editor)
To get to the point, it’s the responsibility of every excavator to record as thoroughly as possible exactly what it is they’re excavating. It might be boring filling in forms (well…actually it is boring filling in forms, we don’t deny it) and taking spot levels and devising stratigraphic matrixes (don’t ask…we’ll get round to them eventually) but it has to be done, because once you’ve dug through it no matter how hard you try you’re never going to put it back together again molecule for molecule in exactly the same way that you extracted it.
Even Dustin Hoffman, or Rainman, or whatever he was called, would have his work cut out just to recreate a vague semblance of the original structure of topsoil, for example.
So, with that in mind, it’s time to introduce our reader to the all important context sheet, a piece of paper so disturbing to archaeology students that it clears blocked bowels and wields more fear than a letter to Charles the First from his old friend Oliver.

You might want to click on the image above, unless you’ve got bionic eyeballs.
As you can see, the context sheet is basically a way of recording every last iota of information concerning a particular context. Each context, no matter how small, even ‘cuts’ which aren’t visible in reality, has its own individually numbered sheet, all of which when combined create a complete stratigraphic matrix for the site.
I’m losing you now, aren’t I? I can tell. You’d be tuning-out in droves if you actually tuned-in in droves in the first place. To be honest it’s really very simple, as most of these things are.
Let’s start with the definition of a context, shall we?
“A context is that which can be identified as standing alone but relative to other contexts.”
I think it was Mortimer Mouse who said that.
A wall is a context. It’s a structure, but it’s also a context.
A layer of soil or clay or sand is a context. It’s a layer, but it’s also a context.
A big Roman urn with a naked lady painted on it…well that’s a small find.
But anything that basically constitutes a layer, a structure, a cut, or the fill of a cut, in the ground is basically a context.
What’s a cut? I’m so glad you asked, because this one’s a bit trickier to explain.
A cut could be a posthole, or a ditch, or a depression in a clay floor made by a very fat monk with a lethargic disposition. To put it another way, it’s anything that cuts into another context.
Here’s a collection of photographs that should, hopefully, explain the differences between a cut, a layer, a structure and fill. Again, it might be an idea to click on the image for a larger version otherwise your eyes will start to water.

Right, starting with the top left hand photograph. That’s a cut…in this case the ditch running alongside our Roman road in Stalmine. It’s a cut because it was ‘cut’ by somebody into the base clay. The clay itself would be classified as a layer. The soil that came out of the ditch is classified as fill. The cut is invisible because it doesn’t physically exist…because it’s a cut. Look…it’s a bloody hole, all right? It has no quantifiable mass. It’s just the imagined gap between the base clay and the fill, but it still exists because somebody cut it.
Okay…so that’s cleared that up then.
Moving along to the top right hand photograph. Now these are examples of layers. Layers like this are also known as stratigraphy, because effectively they’re strata. A layer is a context that isn’t a structure…because a structure’s a structure and needs to be classified separately.
Bottom left hand photograph. That’s a structure. In fact that’s a layer of cobbles at Bodkin Hall. But it’s not a layer really…at least, not in archaeological terms, because it’s a structure.
Finally, the bottom right hand photograph shows a big pile of soil that’s been dug out of our Roman wayside ditch at Stalmine. That’s fill, because it was filling the cut.
Does that make sense now? Good, because each one of them is a context, and each of those layers in the top right hand photograph is a separate context, and every context needs its own context sheet and its own individual number.
Now it’s time to show you how to fill a context sheet in.
Then again perhaps not.
I’ve been getting complaints recently about these articles going on for too long, so you’ll just have to wait until the next posting to find out what you’re supposed to write on the ruddy things.


Jayne said...

I understood everything you said from watching TT and other archaeology shows (tv is useful for something,after all!) but I'd never realised all those sheets existed, eek!
So,if in the future someone wanted to excavate one of your old digs do they approach your group for copies of the paperwork or are there copies lodged with other authorities?
And what happens to these documents if the group disbands; do they get sent to another archaeology group or museum?
Are they universal in style or are there specialised ones for different types of digs?
When finds/cuts/structures are made and documented do the facts get published/shouted from the rooftops or is it just kept to the group excavating and/or local gossip?
Finally, what hair product did Sir Mortimer Wheeler use on that simply splendid example of facial hair?
I'd vote for his mo in the council elections!

RVB said...

Although it's not like archaeology, hunting for fossils involves radiometric dating to gain an "absolute" age on the material in the strata. Is that similar to archaeology practises?

Andrew said...

Good questions Jayne. I reckon Mr Mortimer would have used VO5 hair wax.

Brian Hughes said...


Every excavation has a full excavation report complete with context sheets, small finds scans, stratigraphic matrixes, contour surveys, etc. A copy of the
completed report is sent to the Lancashire County Council Archaeological Department where, I suspect, it's carefully filed in the bin.

Actually, that's not fair. Peter Iles, the County Archaeoligst, is extremely supportive of our endeavours, which reminds me, I've got three reports from this year that need bundling off to him before I forget.

"Are they universal in style or are there specialised ones for different types of digs?"

They do vary from dig to dig and we often have to redesign our own context sheets to fit the job at hand...although, on the whole, they pretty much cover the same ground.

"When finds/cuts/structures are made and documented do the facts get published/shouted from the rooftops or is it just kept to the group excavating and/or local gossip?"

That depends on the landowners. If people want the site to remain 'ingonito' it's entirely up to them...otherwise we whore our discoveries around the press like a politician with a crack problem.


We have carbon and dendro-dating and stuff...but it's very expensive, so usually we end up just guessing.


It looks more like axle grease to me. I suspect he also had one of those specially designed string hammocks to keep it tidy overnight.

JahTeh said...

This all would have been much clearer if you'd put it in context of the layering of a bacon and chip butty.

Brian Hughes said...


The day I start making detailed records and filling in forms for bacon and chip butties, is the day they cart me off in a straightjacket.

Jayne said...

Damn, I was about to say what FB is getting for Chrissy but he'll read this thread.
Well, it's for excavating metal archaeology.
Are these becoming more popular on archaeology sites in general and do they have context sheets, too?

Brian Hughes said...


Without giving the game away (hopefully), yes they are. There's always been a bit of, shall we say, 'tension' between archaeologists 'specialist ferrous hunter' clubs, due to the fact that, in the wrong hands, said devices can cause an awful lot of destruction. However, nowadays we're teaming up in a much more responsible fashion, and we general ly have at least one 'specialist' on site because, from an archaeological perspective, they're invaluable...if any of that makes sense?

Obviously, when used responsibly, context sheets are appropriate for any work conducted by aforementioned 'specialist', although, strictly speaking, the immediate end results would be recorded on separate 'small finds sheets', stating from which context the 'small find' emerged, to help date, classify and identify the overall site.

Strewth...I could barely follow that myself.

Jayne said...

That actually made perfect sense ;)

Brian Hughes said...

Good...could you explain it all to me now, because I haven't got a clue what I was talking about?

John said...

Truly, the best thing to do is to never ever under any circumstances disturb, or allow to be disturbed, any land or soil that may contain archeological evidence within. That way, Archeologists from teh future can use their high tech science that we cannot even dream of yet, to properly analyze the site undisturbed.

Then again, A) who's to say which age is sufficiently advanced to undertake the responsibility of disturbing any site, and B) Whoops, too late.

More truly, I suppose the best thing would be to forgo archeology at all until time travel is invented. Then we can try to decide who is sufficiently advanced enough to go back in time without disturbing the quantum flux of the time line.

Man, you've chosen a morally dillema'd subject to study!

And I thought Cartooning was tough. :0)

JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


As far as I'm concerned the answer is always to dig, especially if it's an unproven site.

The word 'unproven' to any commercial enterprise means 'undeveloped but we'll soon see to that'.

The best bet really is to partially excavate a site...enough to shore up its reputation against future destruction at the hands of the developers, but not enough to ruin the whole site for any possible advances in future techniques. Oh...and obviously it all needs recording meticulously en route.

I've no doubt that at some point in the future, archaeologists with bionic eyeballs and quantum theodolites will criticise us in retrospect for not using their superb advanced techniques...pretty much in the same way that some modern archaeologists criticise the antiquarians of yesteryear.

However, whatever their future complaints, I can't help thinking that if we don't do something now, there won't be any sites left for those whinging future archaeologists to examine.

It's a bit of a Catch 22 situation, only without Orson Wells.

John said...

an intelligent response... bravo!

The way that land is being so unnecessarily overdeveloped these days in teh name of greed, the best we can do is try to preserve what we can. A well documented dig, along with some convincing evidence, can sometimes keep a site from being destroyed.

Of course, if someone wants a spot of land bad enough, it seems a site can be 'recorded', and then done away with, as if reading about something is the same as seeing it in situ. The problem, as you point out, is the question of "what if you missed something", or worse, what if something is considered unimportant?

Unfortunately, many tomb raiders see monetary value as making a site important, or at least making their pockets lined. And in that past you speak of, archeology, like fossil hunting here in the states, was often treated like a sport! Who can bag the biggest trophy, and get it home to their museum before the other guy... with little regard for the site, surroundings, or ownership.

Whew! What a subject.

Well done. Excellent argument for (careful) archeology!

Cheers, JOHN :0)

PS You've spoken of high regard of several local historians... were there ever treasure hunting opportunists attracted to the history of the Wyre?

Brian Hughes said...


There still are treasure hunting opportunists in the Fylde. Unfortunately there's not a lot we can do about it. It'd be nice to think that everybody out there would accept a bit of responsibility for their heritage, but, in reality, very few people do.

The same applies, of course, for the developers and the politicians who pockets they so casually line. That's why, at best, an archaeological site (even if proved to exist) will, as you say, only be treated as 'rescue archaeology' before being condemned to modern development.

Just occasionally, however, our initial researches force the hands of the developers into forking out money for a full scale excavation, which once every blue moon can put them off continuing to consider the site as a viable proposition.

We live, I'm afraid, in an age of 'Quick Buck' making and greed. Having said that, development is part of our history as well...I suppose.

John said...

"development is part of our history as well"

I suppose today's development could be tomorrow's archeology, although it's hard to imagine future archeologists being excited about digging through mounds of garbage from our throwaway society.

Also, why do developers have to exploit new sites, particularly sites of historical importance, when there are often feral sites awaiting reclamation. For example, in the states here we have abandoned buildings, empty alleyways, and other places of ill repair, and yet the devlopers will choose to develop raw forest or farmland everytime.

Wouldn't society benefit more by reclaiming the sordid sites, and leaving us our fresh air sites? Archeologists would then have more sites left undisturbed for the future, and we'd have nice places to walk instead of crowded housing developments named shady acres or deer park.

Or are we getting slightly off topic? :0)

JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...

"...why do developers have to exploit new sites, particularly sites of historical importance, when there are often feral sites awaiting reclamation?"


I've absolutely no idea. It's probably just coincidental, but I really wish they wouldn't.

Jayne said...

John, it's monetarily cheaper (but morally bankrupting) for the "Quick Buck" brigade to throw up new houses in undisturbed farmland than to redevelop tumbled down shacks/ alley ways , etc.

Brian Hughes said...


There you go. What Jayne said.

John said...

Cheers! JOHN :0/