Critique of Archaeological Reason
7. Themes

Emplacement and context

Marco De Pietri – November 2014

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Emplacement and deposition: searching for a clear terminology

In the analysis of the archaeological record some notions about the stratigraphic process, such as emplacement and deposition are extremely important. In CAR, pp. 12, 40-41, 164-166 we find a clear definition of these terms: the emplacement “is the way things are in the ground: their physical juxtaposition, their reciprocal contacts are the proper and exclusive subjects of observation”; the deposition is “the assumed process through which things have come to be in the ground: it can never be observed, but only inferred,” (CAR, p. 12).

Our attention and efforts must be focused on the problem of the interpretation (or better: of giving sense, meaning) to the archaeological data, as a central point of the field work (and, perhaps, even more of the post-excavation process).

If we try to find some of these aspects (emplacement and deposition) in Hodder and Hutson, we will discover many important considerations about the second theme (deposition; see also the excerpts), whereas we will not be able to find any reference to the first one (emplacement). One of the explanations for this lack could be that the present book is not focused on a deep reflection about the particular terms of the stratigraphic data, but rather on a general (but very detailed) analysis of the most important approaches to archaeological problems. This could be the reason why the authors concentrate their efforts in a precise and conscious review of the different ways of approaching archaeology (the considerations on this theme are mainly by Hodder, as we can see reading the first edition of the book which was only the work of this scholar).

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The notion of context

If we try to identify a theme that could be linked to emplacement, we will obtain some results taking into account the considerations about “context.” As explained in the summary, the best archaeological method (for Hodder) is the one that is able to reach a careful analysis of the archaeological context where the various objects are crystallized; the context of an object is defined as “the totality of the relevant dimensions of variation around any one object .... The relevant context for an object ‘x’ to which we are trying to give meaning (of any type) is all those aspects of the data which have relationships with ‘x’ which are significantly patterned” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 188).

In Hodder’s opinion a modern archaeological theory that is aware of its goals needs to include a contextual view which, considering the spatial and physical relations among the objects and the so-called depositional units, is also able to get “inside of events, at the intentions and concepts through which the subjectivities of actors are constituted” (p. 125). In this regard the book by Hodder and Hutson provides a well-done description of the main different approaches used to make inferences about the way “through which things have come to be in the ground i.e., the deposition” (as stated in CAR, p. 12). Some significant definitions about deposition given by Hodder have been collected in the excerpts.

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The many faces of “context”

Hodder leaves open the reflection about the notion of context, saying that it is a problematic and endless analysis: “First, what is the context? Context itself has to be interpreted in the data, and the definition of context is a matter for debate. Is the context of a particular artifact type found in cemeteries a part of the body, the grave, a group of graves, the cemetery, the region, or what? How does one decide on the boundary which defines the context?” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 5).

Chapter 8 of Hodder and Hutson’s work is all devoted to the analysis of “contextual archaeology”. Here we find a deeper review of the context: “The word ‘context’ is used frequently in archaeological discourse, in questions such as what is the context of your remark?’, or ‘what is the data context?’ The word is used in a variety of different situations to mean sensitivity to the particular data - ‘your general idea does not work in my context’ - but in the previous section, we noted that context refers also to the contemporary social, political and economic conditions of research. ‘Context’ comes from the Latin contexere, meaning to weave, join together, connect” (p. 170). Again: “Rather than using interpretative terms (like floor, house, pit, post-hole) at the initial stage of excavation and analysis, many data coding sheets now use less subjective words such as ‘unit’ or ‘context’” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 171).

The importance of the context in Hodder’s theory is evident by his statement that “to reaffirm the importance of context thus includes reaffirming the importance of archaeology as archaeology” (Hodder and Hutson, ibid.).

In summarizing all these considerations, Hodder recognizes a common feature of the context (despite all the different definitions), i.e. the close relationship between contexts and objects: “In sum, archaeologists use the term ‘context’ in a variety of ways which have in common the connecting or interweaving of objects in a particular situation or group of situations. An object as an object, alone, is mute. But archaeology is not the study of isolated objects. Objects may not be totally mute if we can read the context in which they are found .... The context of material culture is not only abstract and conceptual but also pragmatic and non-arbitrary” (Hodder and Hutson, pp. 171-172).

Sometimes Hodder compares the archaeological context with the context of a written document: “the term ‘contextual’ will refer to the placing of items ‘with their texts’ - ‘con-text’. The general notion here is that ‘context’ can refer to those parts of a written document which come immediately before and after a particular passage, so closely connected in meaning with it that its sense is not clear apart from them” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 172).

The practical method to identify a context is explained by Hodder as follow: “the definition of context will depend on identifying relevant dimensions of variation along which similarities and differences can be measured” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 179). The similarities and differences which Hodder is here speaking about are those relating to the spatial, temporal and depositional parameters (see Hodder and Hutson, pp. 177-179 and excerpts, s.v. “Depositional unit”).

So Hodder concludes that “in the past as in the present, the creation of context is an intentional act” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 190). The only thing able to validate the given contexts are the data: “In this sense, it is important to know all the data as thoroughly as possible, and gradually to accommodate theory to data by trial-and-error searching for relevant dimensions of variation, cross-checking with contextual information, and so on” (Hodder and Hutson, ibid.).

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Emplacement and context: differences and affinities

It is interesting to compare the concept of emplacement with that of context as given by Hodder.

A first preliminary consideration is that on the one hand emplacement requires a deeper analysis of both the physical data (such as the relations between the stratigraphic units and the objects) and the role of agents in producing the depositional process; on the other hand, Hodder’s definition of context seems to be focused mainly on the concrete situation rather than on analysing the whole reasons that produced the data (an aspect related to the depositional process). What seems to lack is a theoretical definition of context not only as a framework of physical relationships, but also as the result of a precise depositional process.

Taking into account this theoretical aspect, we introduce here a comparison between the definition of context given by Hodder and by Buccellati. Following Hodder the context is “the totality of the relevant dimensions of variation around any one object”; Buccellati’s definition instead springs again from the main concept of emplacement: “In the case of a simple contact, emplacement can be defined as the disposition of single elements in relation to immediately contiguous space. In the case of multiple or indirect contacts, emplacement can be defined as the disposition of single elements in relation to non-contiguous space. The latter could also be called, in a more generic sense, ‘context’ ” (CAR, p. 50). See also another definition of context found in (CAR, p. 70, where one also finds a definition of the difference between context and assemblage): “Context refers to specific and concrete setting in which the object was found: this suggests correlations that may be arguable as to their meaning, but are factual as to their juxtaposition. Assemblage refers to the collection of objects with analogous formal characteristics: this suggests a patterned production that aims at the same goal, thereby establishing a uniform need.”

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“Data or not ‘data’: that is the question”

At this point, a new question arises: what are the “data”? The problem is well-focused both by Hodder and Buccellati. Hodder says as follow: “Binford and Sabloff (1982) have in fact suggested that the relationship between theory and data is so close that data are observed within theory, and that therefore observational data are really theories (in Binford and Sabloff’s terms the observational data are paradigm dependent)” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 17; cf. also p. 18, fig. 1;) and, in addition: “it is also clear that the concept of ‘data’ involves both the real world and our theories about it .... In other words, the data theory-relationship is conceived and manipulated within cultural and historical contexts” (Hodder and Hutson, pp. 18-19). A last quotation by Hodder that allows us to move to Buccellati: “Collingwood pointed out that, properly speaking, the data do not exist because they are perceived or ‘given’ within a theory. Historical knowledge is not the passive ‘reception’ of facts - it is the discerning of the thought which is the inner side of the event” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 146).

This point of Hodder’s theory of data is interesting because we find something very similar in Buccellati’s book: “The process of stratigraphic excavation entails that data are not in fact given (paradoxically, the data are not ‘data’!). They are the construct of the excavator’s observational itinerary. The grammar is the charter that guides this itinerary, and it is in this sense that it is constitutive of the ‘data’. What is ‘found’ is really not a jar or a floor, but the spatial link between the jar and the floor - and this is not visible (hence it is not ‘given’) before the two are disengaged from the matrix in which they are placed. … The archaeological paradox already noted is that the data are not given as such, they are made into data at the moment they are first observed” (Hodder and Hutson, p. 6). The last consideration is particularly important because it is starting from this basic assumption that the author traces a profile of the emplacement: “The emplacement is far from self-evident: it does not declare itself, but it emerges as a phenomenon (literally, something visible) only because it is so declared by the excavator. And for this declaration to be epistemologically valid (to be subject to arguable canons of knowledge, to be ‘scientific’) it has not only to be constructed, but to be traceable. On this rests any further claim to objectivityand meaning. … The crux of emplacement analysis is therefore to show how to keep track of the observational itinerary in ways that are clearly defined and demonstrable” (Hodder and Hutson, ibid.).

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