Archaeologists attempt to study the archaeological record in order to understand the human interaction at a particular location across the history of time. There are two sources of information that the archaeologist uses from a digging site with the aim of making conclusions about past human behaviour.
These are the physical items located such as artefacts and include objects like jewellery, pottery, stoneware, tools, weapons, clothing, and architectural items like walls, floors, columns, pillars, lintels, doors, gates, roads, wells, and even holes in the ground for rubbish pits.
This is solely information based. Unlike the tangible objects that are classed as ‘material remains’ descriptive data is an intangible factual reality that helps to lock the artefact in a location with context. Examples of archaeological data are measurements, direction, perhaps orientation, and/or associations.
This not only includes the obvious need to quantify the artefact as to height, width, and length, but also weight, mass, and density can be determined along with measuring colour and texture against known registers. Measurements within the archaeological site itself would include calculating its area, the areas of separate fields, strata heights according to sea level (HASL) and attributing HASL to excavated artefacts.
Artefacts collected or described without providing directions is not nearly as useful. Basically, compass bearings are used that provide the analyst with north, south, east and west alignments. For example, gates or entrances to settlements will be noted as facing NE or some other direction. Roads, streets, and walls will be stated to run N-S or perhaps SE – NW. For large items the usual 360 degrees of the standard compass will normally suffice, however, for more exacting calculations the mils compass with 6400 increments delivers greatest accuracy.
Direction for smaller objects is usually confined to recording its orientation. That is; was the object standing up or lying down, etc. In the case of human remains the record will show the posture, orientation, and direction.
This information seeks to position the artefact in relation to its surroundings. This might include noting other similar or dissimilar artefacts found together and will also include the artefact’s relationship to walls, human remains, and any other objects that are in the vicinity. On a wider scale, association may mean the relationship of one field site to another or even one or more settlements to each other.
Artefacts are material remains but they differ from the larger architectural remains often better called ‘features’. The non-movable objects, such as buildings, that have been constructed or modified by people, must be left in situ. Remnants of objects such as the remains of decayed organic materials are sometimes referred to as ‘stains’ in the archaeological record. These, too, must usually be left in situ.
The remains of significant objects that were built on location poses few problems to the archaeological data collector as to its original measurement, direction, and association. It is the smaller, portable objects that, although easy to first quantify in the field, pose the greater difficulties when it comes to interpretation.
Interpretation of Data
Transportable items may have been deposited at their discovery position because they were inadvertently dropped, deliberately stolen from elsewhere or some other reason totally unknown to us. Often, only a single sherd of pottery is discovered. It could be the only remains of an item once at that location or it could have been brought in from elsewhere for a special purpose yet unknown.
Archaeologists need to be ever mindful of their interpretations of the collected data from the often vague and ambiguous archaeological record. Stone and ceramics are materials that preserve well. Artefacts of organic origin such as human or animal bones, skins, and hair, or items made of wood or plant matter do not survive long in moisture laden soils or soils with high acidity.
Therefore, the lack of discovered organic artefacts may not necessarily suggest that there were few originals and the data analyst must factor in the soil types and the climate conditions also taking consideration of any climatic changes to the site over time.
All archaeological research should incorporate an historical background investigation. This will compliment the data recorded during the excavation and allow analysts to ‘see’ the artefacts in the context of what happened at that site before and after the date of the artefact.