Friday, October 31, 2008

Context Lost-- So What?

My last post has evidently struck a nerve. Three blogger/archaeologists associated with Saving Antiquities for Everyone responded, two with multiple posts addressing the same issue. You can find them all through this post from Nathan Elkins:
I may not always agree with Nathan, but at least he generally makes a real effort to be polite!

Anyway, all seem concerned by the alleged loss of context of this find, which apparently sat upon an ancient midden or garbage dump. But what would have that context really told us other than someone deposited bronze nummi out with trash?

I'm sure Messrs. Gill, Barford and Elkins will come up with something, but certainly all context is not created equal. Here, for example, the follow up investigations by a professional archaeologist apparently did not come up with anything more of real signifcance or we would likely have heard it by now.

All this actually points to the genius of the British and Welsh system. Treasure Trove and the Portable Antiquities Scheme in effect put amateurs into a partnership with professional archaeologists. The amateurs may be in it just for the money(as at least Messr. Barford insinuates) or they may be in it because they truly love history-- but the effect is much the same. Trained archaeologists are few in number and no one can expect them to spend much time roving the countryside in search of promising sites. This is where amateurs come in. Most of the time they find little of archaeological significance, but sometimes they lead archaeologists to important discoveries. There may be some loss of context along the way, but isn't this a price worth paying when an otherwise unknown archaeological site of significance comes to light?


Voz Earl said...

In my reply to Paul Barford's post on the subject (which apparently will never see the light of day on his blog) I asked whether he thought these coins would have ever been found if not for detectorists. Is there any reason to believe this midden would have been recognized and excavated? Thanks to the UK system we will at least be able to glean some information from this hoard.

Paul cited various paragraphs from the applicable legal code to which I replied:

"In reading through the paragraphs you cite, I'm once again impressed with the UK system. They have obviously taken human nature into consideration, i.e., 'you may receive a greater reward for finds left intact,' 'archaeologists are to keep original finder appraised as to progress with subsequent excavation,' etc. It seems to me that the best thing in this regard would be for archaeologists to actively publicize these provisions to detectorist groups--tout them as incentives for cooperation.

How about a simple presentation with real-world scenarios...'you're out digging and you see XYZ, you're excited and want to quickly uncover the find to see what it is, but the best thing you can do at this point is to stop digging and contact such and such person/agency--don't worry, you will not lose whatever you are entitled to by law and will be kept appraised of what is eventually uncovered. By doing this you will help to preserve much valuable information.' As long as the detectorists feel secure that they aren't going to lose the just rewards of their labor and good fortune, I believe they would be eager to cooperate."

Voz Earl

Ed Snible said...

I asked Elkins about the informational vlaue of "stratigraphic context". He responded with a long definition and directed me to watch a 13 minute video for elementary school teachers. The school teaching ideas sound like fun, like baking objects into a cake. I was disappointed to see Shelby Brown, the vice president of education of the AIA, say (8:17 minutes in) regarding context "... if you have not recorded it exactly in every way so that you can re-do it in 3D you've committed a social science history crime... "

Elementary school teachers may not understand that 'crime' is being used figuratively.

I'm curious as to what was 'lost' in this and similar cases. What would the raw data look like for a find such as this? The follow-up licensed archaeologist didn't find any more objects so it isn't like the diggers missed anything metallic. It's true that any knowledge of rotted wood such as fenceposts and floorboards is lost.

It would be nice to measure how valuable that information is to society. Is losing information about "context" considered ethically like burning trash in ones backyard or is it like pouring factory waste into a river? To understand "context" I'd need to know what typical raw data is included in a report and where it is archived. In the archaeological community is there disagreement over how fine to make the grid (meters? centimeters?) Where can the interested public obtain raw data for sites? Elkins says that the PAS doesn't keep the stratigraphic information ... but does anyone keep a reverse-index linking PAS numbers to raw data archives or published reports?

Paul Barford said...

Voz, I do not know when and how you sent it, but I never received your comment, so you can cut out the insinuations. I will answer the points you made here and that which Mr Tompa made in the main post later on today on my blog.

Nathan Elkins said...

Just for clarification, Ed's comment was posted after he had assumed I had ignored/rejected a follow up comment that he posted. I never received a second comment from him and so that was a misunderstanding. He has since sent me his follow up questions privately.


Voz Earl said...

Sorry Paul,

I "published" it twice using the comment feature. I figured the first time may have been a glitch and the second time--that it simply wasn't wanted. My mistake, no offense intended.

Voz Earl