Archaeological classification incorporates the processing of field acquired data collection and collation of ceramics, organic remains, lithic relics, and any other artefact used or changed by humans and recovered from the archaeological record.
Why Classify Artefacts?
Classification of archaeological relics makes identification and recognition easier to understand. Washing and labelling items is the first step in the classification of artefacts. Less recognised is the enormous amount of time that classification technicians require to perform this task. Due to the lengthy time proportions allocated to classification procedures, archaeology students or amateur and professional volunteers usually undertake this work.
Every scientific discipline must adopt one or more systems of classification to order itself and form solid foundations to assist study and research. In archaeology the classification of artefacts must remain free from modern external bias. The most useful method of artefact classification is assessment of raw materials such as stone, clay, metal or glass. This category of classification forms the basis of archaeological coding.
Next in importance is artefact morphology. This will include the shape, size, form and design. Also included within the morphology category is style. Although sometimes overlapping with design elements, style is usually applied to the decoration and aesthetic additions to what would otherwise be a purely utilitarian object.
Archaeologists also want to separate technological and functional aspects of the object from its stylistic attributes. Many tools and utensils firstly appear to be simply utilitarian in use but closer examination will often reveal a social or even an ideological function. Hence, classification systems must be able to overlay different categories onto the same artefact without complicating the process.
Difficulties arise when an object’s function is ambiguous, or worse, totally unknown. Items that have baffled archaeologists as to where to fit them in classification categories have included the pot that was on the head of a buried person and piles of cast bronze figurines that provide no context to their placement or purpose.
Classifiers will record all of the artefacts from one site. This grouping of all artefacts is called an assemblage. Sub-assemblages are more refined and patterned sets of groupings that represent the human behaviour at that site.
Therefore, there could be a papyri assemblage, a metal assemblage, a pottery assemblage, and so on from the one site.
Time Periods verses Culture
Another common classification system is to type artefacts according to age. Artefacts that are readily recognisable can usually be positioned in a particular time period, such as classical Greek, or they may be categorised according to location or cultural characterisation like Inca, Indian or Trojan.
Ancient craftsmen used various methods to create their tools, utensils, weapons and decorative items. Archaeological classification can divide artefacts by their manufacturing methodology. For example, there are many ways to chip a stone to create a knife. Three near identical flint knives could be classified into differing categories if one was made by direct percussion – striking the flint with a hammer to dislodge sharp flakes – or indirect percussion – punching the flakes off by an intermediate tool – or pressure flaking – pressing off the flint flakes without hitting the stone.
Every museum or collector of ancient antiquities will have arranged their collection to conform to a classification system. Classifying these relics helps us to understand the process of their manufacture, their purpose to the society that used them, and the importance that the artefact played in their daily lives. Cleaning it up is the easy part, deciding what to write on the label is the more difficult task of the qualified archaeological classification technician.