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Context in Archaeology

Context in Archaeology or “where did it come from?” is one of the most important questions archaeologists ask.  One of the primary philosophies in archaeology is reconstructing daily life of human history and prehistory through material remains. Although one artifact can outline the potential age of a site and its trade relations between communities, it cannot tell you the bigger picture of how the object is understood and what it means to the daily life of the people unless you look at its association with the environment and other material remains that surround it.

So how do we look at context in archaeology? The stratigraphy (the layering of soils and remains) of a site and the objects within each layer are examined in order to understand the meaning of the object and its association to the site. Soil develops layers over time; therefore objects found in one layer are considered to be related and date to a similar time of use, while objects found in another layer, either above or below, are deposited at an alternate time and indicate a different period of use.


Archaeologists can even identify when pits were dug on site just by looking at the layers of soil. Artifacts that are found in the same layer of soil are examined as a whole to identify what daily life was like during the time the objects were deposited there. For example, archaeologists at the Lawson site beside MOA excavated thousands of pottery fragments that can be studied by their physical attributes in order to understand ecology, social organization etc. Theoretically, one would consider a pottery fragment excavated in a hearth surrounded by carbonized corn remains to mean something different than a pottery fragment excavated across the site near the remains of a deer. While the use of the objects may have different meanings individually, if they are found in the same stratigraphic layer, chances are they were used at the same time.   In our example, this tells us that the Attawandaron people of Lawson had a diet containing both deer and corn at the same time.

Context is a very broad subject in archaeology, but it is one of the most useful tools for archaeologists to understand daily life and its evolution over thousands of years in Ontario. Understanding context helps identify subsistence patterns, time periods, social organization, and environment and relate it all together into one big picture.

Further Learning:


  • Bahn, Paul, and Colin Renfrew. 2008. Archaeology Theories, Methods, and Practice. 5th ed. Thames and Hudson Pg. 121-123
  • Johnsen, Harald, and Bjornar Olsen. 1992. Hermeneutics and Archaeology: On the Philosophy of Contextual Archaeology. American Antiquity. Vol 57, no. 3: 424-425


  • Bahn, Paul, and Colin Renfrew. 2008. Archaeology Theories, Methods, and Practice. 5th ed. Thames and Hudson Pg. 123




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