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Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Is context really everything?

So here we go again, the archaeo-bloggers are having a field day yet again with regards to what they are calling destruction of the archaeological record. I personally call it, sounding like a broken record.
How many times have we heard that context is everything and that unless it is properly studied by trained archaeologists it will be lost and we will never know how/why/when the item was buried/dropped/lost. It seems to be the main argument that archaeologists or should i say the anti-detecting portion of archaeologists use to try and call for restrictions and or regulation of our hobby.

So what is context? what knowledge can be gained by slowly and carefully digging around a urn full of roman coins for example. How can we find out why, when and by who these coins were lost for us to dig up hundreds of years later. What is it that archaeologists are looking for when they spends days digging a hoard out of the ground.

It has always been my thinking that when a hoard of coins was buried it was due to a reason such as the person with the hoard was under some kind of threat or danger and wanted to hide their wealth to stop it being taken. Now, surely anyone who is hiding their life savings would be doing so as quick as possible to reduce the risk of anybody seeing them. I cannot imagine they would have taken time to drop things in the hole to add as evidence for the archaeologists to dig up hundreds of years of later so that we can complete the archaeological record. So what else could context be? is it the soil type or what its made up of. If this is the case why not dig a pit two foot away from where the metal detectorists dug the urn full of coins and go to the same depth surely this will be the same untouched soil and the same information will be there.

I am not a trained archaeologist, in fact i know sod all about archaeology. I am a metal detectorist and as such have never been taught about context, so above are the conclusions i have come to by myself. I will quite happily concede that my own thoughts are rubbish if someone wants to comment on this blog post and correct me, someone who is trained and studies so called "context" on a daily basis. Because as far as I am concerned context is just an argument point that some use to try to drag metal detecting down.

I eagerly wait to be corrected.


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  3. Sorry made a mistake in original comment

    As Jordan referred to in janners blog the hoxne hoard is one example where Archie's were able find out more about the context of the objects ie how they were packed into the box from the non metal material that still survived. This would not have happened if the objects had just been pulled out the ground.

  4. Oh I agree if it was in say a wooden box delicate care is needed as the box is also evidence from the past, but in the case of a pot urn of roman coins that was obviously quite delicately dug I don't really see it as so much of a problem.

    Also when average Joe public steps into a museum what is it that takes his imagination the urn full of bronze and silver roman coins or the card at the side that says what the archaeologists think may of happened, bearing in mind the majority of archaeology is guesswork.

  5. I don't really understand the carefully dug part. Just because they didn't break it doesn't mean it was carefully dug. How would anyone know if the urn wasn't covered in something before burial.

    Furthermore even if it was careful digging, their focus as appears from the hole is on the urn not what may be around the urn. Also I don't think we should as detectorists be aiming for what average joe thinks but rather seek to achieve better standards than that.

  6. Hello Andy, only just found your blog, read the above post and decided to comment.
    Lets get one thing straight right from the start, I am a metal detectorist, I've been detecting for around 25 years, I dont consider myself to be any kind of expert and what I write below is only my opinion.

    I find it incredible that anyone can look at the pictures of the latest Roman hoard and decide that what they did was correct. Take a look at any hoard that has been excavated by Archaeologists and compare the images. The differences are plain to see. What we have here is a perfect example of what you should'nt do, and if the "powers that be" within metal detecting have any sense of ethical right and wrong they should be commenting on this right now. I very much doubt they will however.

    I feel the biggest issue for most metal detectorists in this whole sorry episode is the fact that one of the most vocal in condemning the finders actions is Mr Barford. Whilst I will agree that there have been plenty of posts on his blog that I dont agree with and I find his use of school play ground name calling a bit tiresome on this ocassion i happen to think he is right. I urge you to remove any thought of Paul Barford when reading his posts on this situation and ask yourself whether or not you agree with what has been posted.

    As for the question asked in the tiltle of this blog, "Is context really everything" the answer is without doubt no, however it is a massive part in understanding what it is you're looking at.
    Take a Roman Brooch as perfect example, most brooches can be tied down to within a century or two due to the fact that so many of the type found have been found within a stratified layer and therefore remain "in context" ie, finding a "Colchester" type brooch will give you an idea that the site it came off has early roman occupation, where as finding a "knee" brooch will tell you that the site was occupied between AD 150 & AD 250. OK ok, this is massively over simplifying things but I'm sure you get the idea?

    So what is context? I've just spent the last 2 hours driving up the M5 trying to think of a simple explanation, this is the best i can do...(as you can tell I was hungry when I thought of this)

    Go and buy 5 tins of Heinz baked beans (other brands are available) :D and put them in your cupboard lined up against the back wall.
    A month later go and buy another 5 tins of beans and remove on of the labels from the tins, then place them directly infront of the first line of beans.
    A month later go and buy a another 5 tins and place them infront of the second row.
    Do the same for another 2 months.
    Anyone in the future knowing that the tins have not been moved can open that cupboard and determine how old the tin without the label on is. likewise if there is anything else sandwiched between the rows you can tentatively date that as well.
    Again thats massively over simplified but I'm hungry and thats the best I can do at present. :)


  7. I am sure the finders did what they thought was to them acceptable procedure at the time. A hoard find is for a few detectorists,s the find of a lifetime and how do you plan for such an event ?
    Realistically it should have been left in place and precautions taken to ensure its safety until it could have been dealt with in an appropriate manner. However it was not and I feel sure that when the hoard comes before the TVC an abatement of any award will be inevitable. Sorry, but examples have to be made of bad practice even when the finders thought they were being cautious.
    However by contrast had the find been located on a development site it is very likely to have gone into the spoil heaps or off site to a landfill and lost forever.


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