Where Did You Find That Artifact?
When I am shown an artifact, the first question I ask is “Where did you find that artifact?” By asking this question, I am seeking to learn about the archeological context of the artifact. Context refers to the physical location where an artifact was found and the artifact’s spatial relationship to other objects and cultural features. Context allows artifacts to be linked to specific events, site occupations, and cultural traditions. Context also helps to explain how objects were used, what their significance was, and what role they played in the lives of people in the past.
Since digging on archeological sites is inherently destructive, archeological excavations require careful earthmoving and meticulous record keeping to document the context of artifacts and cultural features as they are encountered. Once excavation has taken place, the context of artifacts and cultural features is preserved because of the excavation records.
When members of the public incidentally discover artifacts, pick them up, and take them home, they are unknowingly separating artifacts from their original context. Intentional “relic hunting” for artifacts by digging through privies and bottle dumps, metal detecting, and magnet fishing causes permanent damage to archeological sites by disturbing intact deposits and also results in displaced artifacts that lack the contextual information needed to learn about the past. Context information that is lost when artifacts are removed from archeological sites without proper recordation usually cannot be reconstructed after the fact.
When you find an archeological site or artifact, it is best to leave the site and artifact as you found it and contact a professional archeologist to determine what you have discovered. A convenient option for reporting artifact discoveries to the Maryland Historical Trust is by using the mdFIND app, https://mht.maryland.gov/documents/PDF/research/mdFIND.pdf
There are many opportunities to become involved in the Maryland archeological community, learn about the importance of archeological context, and meet professional archeologists who are eager to record and document archeological discoveries made by the public. Join the Archeological Society of Maryland, whose goals include the creation of bonds between avocational and professional archeologists. Volunteer on archeology projects in the field and in the lab. Attend lectures, workshops, and site tours (see the Calendar of Events on the Maryland Archeology Month website, www.marylandarcheologymonth.org). By participating in the archeological community, both you and Maryland archeology will benefit!
I hope you enjoy the case studies in this booklet highlighting the importance of context in Maryland archeology. And when you catch a ballgame at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, please share this baseball-related fun fact:
What is now Center Field used to be the location of Babe Ruth’s father’s saloon in the early 1900s.