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  • Robert D. Wall

Issues of Context and Meaning: Three Examples from the Barton Site

Context is everything in archeology. In other words, if you cannot place an artifact in its original context, or where it was originally left behind long ago, then you lose its true meaning. You may be able to say how old a projectile point is and identify its raw material but not much more than that can be determined. This relegates the artifact of unknown provenience to the sweeping array of gross generalizations we make about artifacts every day. But, if you know exactly where the artifact was found, and even better, what else was found in association with the artifact, then you have some verifiable information as well as more precise details on the artifact’s age (e.g., C-14 dating).

The context is also important in identifying the most basic human activities represented in the past. What archeologists call features are visible signs of the past exemplified by the use of fire, the building of structures, the storage of food, and the performance of rituals. These are all material expressions of human behavior that leave behind evidence that such pursuits happened in the past. Many of these features (e.g., post molds and burned earth) have no artifact associations but they are essential pieces of the puzzle. Features show that archeologists derive information from not just artifacts but from other signs, imprints, stains and physical impressions of past human activities.

There are three examples of archeological context provided here from investigations at the Herman Barton Village Site (18AG3). In the profile of stratigraphy at the Barton site (Figure 1) there is a long sequence of occupations (human habitation events) from the end of the Ice Age until European Contact. Careful excavations at Barton have recovered stone tools, lithic debitage, and carbonized wood from hearth features in the deepest occupation layer. The recovery of carbonized wood in association with the stone tools has allowed for radiocarbon dating of the deepest occupation. The carbonized wood was dated to 13,000 years old, which indicates that this deeply buried occupation is likely associated with the Paleoindian Clovis time period. Analysis of the stone tools and chipping debris show that the earliest inhabitants of the site used local raw materials to make Paleoindian Clovis-related tools. The actual tool making process and fragments of tools are evident in the hearth-side contexts. Other details revealed in layers above the Clovis occupation include buried soil horizons and human activities in prehistory, also carefully excavated to preserve the original contexts.

The second example relates to the use of copper beads on the Barton site. It is well known that metals such as copper and brass were used as trade items between European traders and American Indians as early as the 1500s. It is also known that copper tubular beads, very similar in form to the Contact period beads, have been made by American Indians well before Contact (Figure 2). Both time periods, with similar copper beads, are represented on the Barton site. The two copper beads illustrated here are from the center of a 15th century Keyser house and from just inside the palisade of the Keyser village. Good context demonstrates these two beads are Keyser-affiliated, or mid-1400s and not Susquehannock, i.e. after A.D. 1600. All of the other copper and brass beads found on the site come from Susquehannock features more than 100 meters north of the Keyser village.

The third example relates to the Keyser phase house itself. The structure is represented by features including post molds that provide an outline of where the house originally stood (Figure 3). The documentation of the post mold features also provides details on how the structure was built with posts paired in a way to retain materials used in building the walls. The interior of the house shows a central hearth and pit features of different sizes. There are also features on the outer periphery of the structure that relate to what activities took place in the area surrounding the house. The use of space hundreds of years ago, both within and outside of the house, cannot be described without proper documentation of archeological context. Nor can the location of the house be described without context, just a few meters from the southern edge of the palisade surrounding the village. Context alone, in association with artifacts, allows archeologists to say so much about the size and shape of the house, how old it is, what happened inside the house, and where in the Keyser village it was located. This is all based on evidence from feature contexts and the artifacts they contain. This represents yet another clear example of the importance of context in archeology.

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