Prepositions, as you may or may not know, are the usually small but useful words which make spacial and relational sense to a sentence. Consider the phrase “the man in the moon”. How different would that be if it was “the man on the moon” or “the man from the moon” or “the man over the moon”. Just as these little words are invaluable for conveying meaning to a sentence, they also confer meaning to an assemblage of archaeological objects.

Archaeologists try to explain past life ways. They use all items (usually excavated) that they obtain which relate to the society they are investigating. Then they try to relate these objects to each other and to the material culture of other societies in order to build a picture of life in that place, at that time. The objects which archaeologists use to recreate ancient lifestyles vary greatly from site to site and the information which can be obtained from these objects increases as technological progress broadens our range of interpretation. For example the use of DNA analysis, mass spectroscopy, scanning electron microscope, and X-ray fluorescence can tell us increasing detail about the composition of the artefacts and surface features which may provide information about how it was made and what it was used for.

Archaeology has been compared to building a puzzle without a picture to copy. Archaeologists have to rely on the pieces of the puzzle themselves (the objects they excavate or discover) to recreate past lifeways. But as with a puzzle, a single piece is worthless, or may even be a red herring; it is the correct linking of the pieces which forms the picture. These linkages come from the context in which these objects are found i.e. the physical relationship between objects and between objects and their environment. This is where the prepositions become very important for interpreting age, use and cultural value of these items.

Related objects (beside, near)

Objects found next to each other may be related. For example, if objects were found beside each other in a grave, it is likely that they were associated with the same person (either during their lifetime or buried as a tribute when they died). Together they give an indication of how important the person was, their occupation, or ties to other communities. 

If objects are found near each other in a domestic situation they can tell something of the daily lifestyle and the technologies used. They can indicate how objects were used together. For example, in food preparation; knife blades can indicate what food was prepared and how.  If the knife is found with cooking pots or fires, this adds more detail to the information.  

Age of objects (above or below)

Objects found above or below each other could indicate relative dates. In usual situations objects found in deeper strata were deposited before (therefore older) than those found at higher levels. Exceptions, and there are always exceptions, could be where items were passed on or used from generation to generation or revered as sacred objects and not discarded.  Other exceptions occur where there has been disturbance of the deposit and the layers have been mixed or inverted by earthquakes, human construction activity or burrowing animals.

Important or prohibited items (upside-down, back to front)

Objects (or people) found deposited in specific, unusual orientation or systematically broken or marked, can indicate something of the value system or beliefs of the people who deposited them in this way. For example a single burial deliberately aligned differently to other burials in a graveyard indicates that this individual was valued differently. Possibly they held a different religious belief to the community or the manner of their death was unusual or they had been identified as having elevated or demoted status. A single object or burial cannot provide this information. It is only when a pattern emerges of the usual, that the unusual can be identified.  Once identified, it requires a large amount of other relevant information to suggest an explanation. The unusual is always problematic to explain. 

Evidence of ritual (inside)

It can usually (but not always) be assumed that objects found inside other objects have deliberately been placed there (tools in baskets, seed or food remains in pots etc.). In addition to revealing a relationship between the items (tools and technologies; diet and climate), this could also be indicative of ritual. This is particularly true of objects deliberately buried inside other objects; coins in mouths, food offerings in bowls, etc.

Materials and construction (of) 

The material that artefacts are made of is very important too. It tells of the manufacturing capabilities of the society and their resourcefulness in exploiting their environment. Where the raw materials are not local this could indicate either a wandering individual (limited foreign material) or a migratory society. With the advance of analytical technologies it is possible to characterise the chemical composition of many artefacts and to identify the source of the raw material. A good example is the volcanic rock obsidian whose chemical “signature” can be attributed to specific areas or even specific eruptions. It was highly prized for its very sharp cutting edges and so makes a very good indicator of trade routes or migratory paths. Whether the trade was in the raw material or the finished goods could be determined by checking the archaeological assemblages for the presence of manufacturing waste, such as flint. The styles or decoration of the artefact could also indicate foreign origins or influence.

Obsidian flake found in the Waikato. Auckland Museum Tamaki Paenga Hira 2015.36.3

Absence of evidence (without)

Sometimes the lack of a type of artefact can be informative too. Archaeologists must recognise and explain this absence. Is the raw material missing from the environment, or does the society not have the technologies to manufacture it? Does the society not need this type of artefact for their daily lives – do they use something else? Do they not have contact with other societies who manufacture and use these items? Is the use of this item restricted and so only found in religious sites or certain social strata? Or have the traces of this type of item just not been found because conditions are not favourable to preservation or due to scarce excavation. Always remembering that absence of proof is not proof of absence. An example of this is the relative lack of gold artefacts or gold production in pre-European Sub-Saharan Africa. There was plentiful and accessible gold ore, and the communities had metal working technologies whereby they smelted iron to a very high level of proficiency. However the large scale production of gold seems to come about only as a response to European and/or Near Eastern demand.

So we see the importance of context to the interpretation of archaeological material. Context within the site, and context within the larger region and time period in which the excavation is situated is critical to any assessment. 


Photo: Axel Hindemith / Lizenz: Creative Commons CC-by-sa-3.0 de

Header: Excavations at the cave of Santa Ana (Cáceres, Extremadura, Spain), Mario Modesto Mata