Wednesday, November 19, 2008

How to be an Archaeologist: Context Sheets Part Two

In the last part of this article we looked at the definition of individual contexts, those being layers, cuts, fills or structures, but definitely not Roman urns with naked ladies painted on them.
We also discussed how, during an archaeological excavation, every individual context needs recording in full on a separately numbered context sheet. However, due to mounting pressure from the ‘Keep these Articles Short’ lobby, we were forced to abandon our educational lecture and seek refuge in spaghetti bolognaise with baked spud instead.
Now read on…

Below is an example of a completed context sheet for some layer or other at Bodkin Hall in Pilling.

I’m getting a bit fed up with writing this now, but just in case you’re new to the internet, click on the image above to enlarge it otherwise you’re going to pull a muscle in your eyeball.
Right, let’s run through this quickly.

Site Code: Every site has its own unique code. In this particular instance, it’s WA006, which stands for Wyre Archaeology 006. Does that make sense? I hope it does, because I’m not going to explain it any better than that.

Date: This should be pretty obvious even if the person filling out the context sheet is a member of the Little Wood Plumpton Over 90s All Interbred Domino League.

Trench: Signifies the trench number, of course. If you’ve got several trenches open across the site, they’ll all need numbering separately, obviously.

Category: We talked about this in the last part of the article. Just decide what sort of context you’re writing up about and tick the box. Come on…we couldn’t make it much simpler for you if we tried, could we?

Context no: The ‘no’ is short for number. It doesn’t mean ‘no’ in the literal sense, so stop trying to work out the Zen behind it. Every context needs its own number, so make sure you’re not writing one down that’s already been used by another context first.

Now we get onto ‘Deposit’. This does not refer to the presents left by local cows and sheep. It refers to layers, structures and/or fills. These are all solids (which is more than can be said for most cow deposits) and are therefore classified as deposits. So if you’re recording a structure, a layer or a fill, then this is the section you need to fill out.

Let’s have a photograph of a deposit.

All right…that’s enough of that. Obviously Chris isn’t the deposit. That big heap of spoil behind him is a deposit though. (Right…if you’re going to giggle and mess about every time I write the word deposit and/or spoil I’m going to lose my temper!)
It’s a deposit because it was the topsoil dug out of the trench, see? It’s the spoil.

Right…whoever burst out laughing then, stop reading this board now and go to your room until you’ve grown up!

The floor of the trench, working on the assumption that Chris has hit the top of the Roman agger there, is also a…deposit. (I’m watching you Davies-Allen! And you Barker…take that gum out of your mouth!)

Now we’ve got that cleared up…(Culshaw-Philips, leave the classroom now and take that childish smirk with you!) it’s back to the context sheet.

Colour: There is actually a gradated chart for accurately defining stratigraphic colour combinations…but we never use it, which is why virtually every context on a Wyre Archaeology dig ends up being recorded as orangey, yellowy, brownish stuff. Nobody’s ever complained so far, so we’re reasonably sure it doesn’t matter.

Composition: This usually consists of a single word such as ‘clay’ or ‘soil’ or ‘cow dung’, the latter of which is two words, I know, but is generally recorded as one when we have to write it down on a context sheet. I’m not about to repeat that particular word here.

Compaction: This refers, obviously, to how compact the deposit is. (I’m warning you Clayton…) Friable doesn’t mean that you can bung it in a pan with two eggs and bacon, but that it’s dry and crumbly and stuff. If your trowel has been bent into a right angle by the deposit, then it probably means that it’s cemented.

Coarse components: Grit, gravel, teeth, you name it, if there’s a lot of it in there and it grinds when you trowel it then it needs to be recorded.

Horizon clarity: refers to how clearly defined this context is from the one above it. Sometimes clay and soil layers merge into each other like a big smudge, or the endless stream of garbage on digital television after three glasses of Jack Daniels. This would be classified as ‘diffuse’.

Contamination risk: Look…just don’t go digging near any nuclear plants in an attempt to make a joke out of this, all right? I’m pretty sure you can figure out what it means. The same goes for the ‘Methods’ category too, which just about wraps up the deposit section…thankfully.

Moving on to the ‘Cut’ section, which needs to be filled out if you’re recording a cut. Unlike deposits, which in the case of soil and/or clay layers just run on and on and on (not unlike this article) across the entire field, cuts tend to be confined to a small manageable area…which is why a cut record tends towards shape and dimensions and so forth.

I honestly don’t think there’s any point in going through each category here. Just use your loaf, and go easy on the pickle.

Now then…the stratigraphic matrix! In a nutshell the stratigraphic matrix is a structured compilation of all the contexts in a chronological sequence. The trouble is, sometimes you get, say, mediaeval postholes that cut through a Roman layer and, after the post has rotted, end up being filled by Edwardian soil and stuff, for example. That doesn’t mean that any pottery found at the bottom of the posthole can be dated to the Roman period just because it emerged at the same depth. That’s why all the confusing mess in the ground needs sorting out chronologically into a stratigraphic matrix.

Here’s one we prepared earlier, detailing the structure of various layers and their corresponding time periods at Bodkin Hall.

In the case of filling in a context sheet, obviously you don’t need to draw up the whole matrix. You just draw up the contexts directly above and below the one you’re recording (occasionally the one to the side if you’re feeling that way inclined, and assuming there is one). By the way, if you’re wondering why context number 024 in the diagram above is in a circle rather than a square, that’s because it was a cut. Cuts are recorded in circles and deposits are recorded in squares. It makes it easier to see them that way, apparently.

Beneath the space on the context sheet for the stratigraphic matrix, are the relationship boxes (no, not for marriage breakdowns…come on, get it out of your system…), which, like the stratigraphic matrix, explain the relationships between the different (and closest) contexts.

Beneath this is…oh come on, it’s obvious and I’m missing something good on the telly. Look, figure it all out for yourselves and if you get stuck then ask the site manager…which in Wyre Archaeology’s case would be me, so you’d be basically stuffed.

The important bit is, however, that these sheets are filled in regardless of time consumption, aching wrists (watch it Shone!) and/or other numerous complaints. If nothing else they make the excavation report look fatter and more impressive…and that’s the most important thing of all.


Lord Sedgwick said...

I'm so looking forward to "Context Sheets, Duvets and Pillows Part Three."

BTW, does the word verification 'tohetict' relate to the diggings at the Machu Picchu Bourne Fool in the Hill site?

Thought not.

More to do with that great archaeological fillum starring Kev Costner, "Fields of Dreams" which was premised on ye olde concept of "Build it, bury it and they will come."

Brian Hughes said...


Field of Dreams was more of a case of 'Make it and they will watch...because they'll watch any old crap.'

Anonymous said...

Could you explain a bit more in depth how the DATE field should be completed?

Brian Hughes said...


Certainly. The usual sequence is as follows:

1. When you reach the DATE section of the context sheet, pause with pen/pencil hovering over the clipboard at the ready.

2. Roll up coat sleeve. (Whether this is the left or the right sleeve depends entirely on which arm you strap your watch.)

3. Press button on watch until you reach the bit that deals with the date. Some watches (the more traditional ones) have the date on the face. Please consult your watch manual for full instructions.

4. Make mental note of date, and then copy the figures onto the context sheet (in the box supplied).

5. If you're not wearing a watch, ask the person standing next to you what the date is.

6. Roll sleeve back down and open up the butty bag.

Hope that helps.

John said...

Another excellent and informative post! Gee, i sure hope a book comes out of all this, because if one of us were to start a dig somewhere, we'd have to drag our computers out with us, and search through the last 100 blogs for all stuffs archeological.

Or we could just call Wyre Archeology, I guess, and stand back and watch the magic unfold.

Yeah, that sounds easier.

By the way, you must get a lot of rain out that way, for a 'modern driveway' to be covered with that much topsoil!

Cheers, JOHN :0)

PS 'deposits'! giggle, giggle

Jayne said...

We're about to fill in FB's gigantic trench with nary a context sheet or level reading taken.
I shall have harsh words to the naughty possums for their lax paperwork.

Brian Hughes said...


The book is in the pipeline...currently stuck in the 'U' bend.

Brian Hughes said...


You snook in whilst I was typing there.

"We're about to fill in FB's gigantic trench with nary a context sheet or level reading taken."

Not to worry. You've got your dumpy level dusted down and you can print out the context sheet from the first part of this article, so next time the two of you dig a canyon in your garden, you can do it all properly. (You'll feel so much more professional and satisfied if you do.)

Jayne said...

What's this "next time" ?!
I'm plonking a great ruddy vegie patch right over the whole thing and this one isn't being sacrificed to the good of archaeological science.

Brian Hughes said...


"What's this "next time" ?!"

Trust me...there will be a next time. The Feral Beast had got the taste of archaeological blood in his mouth now. Next time it'll be the front lawn, worryingly close to where the goldfish is buried.