When context is the most important

Artefacts, as well as their shapes and dimensions were what counted in the past. Today the context of their discovery is the most important thing. Without the context, the archaeologist is like an illiterate person given a book.

Mozolne wybieranie kości, muszli, węgli i drobnych zabytków z przemytych na sitach sedymentów jaskiniowych. © M. Bogacki, na licencji CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Painstaking selection of bones, shells, charcoals and small artefacts recovered by flotation of cave sediments.
© M. Bogacki, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence

It is the end of May 2022 and we are working in a trench at the entrance to Sąspowska Cave: we sample the soil for analyses. Claudio Berto is sitting by the trench and watching me working.

Claudio Berto (palaeontologist, he specializes in research on small mammals): If you were heading these excavations 100 years ago, you would have been standing by the trench at the entrance to the cave with a notebook in your hand and watching hired workers sweating down there in the trench. Every now and then a man would have brought you an artefact. You would have taken notes along the way. If you were doing this 50 years ago, workers or students would have been working in the trench and you would have been standing on the edge of the trench with a sheet of paper on the drawing board and marked the places of discovery of artefacts in your schematic drawing. But today? Today you are down there, in the trench, with a mask over your face, examination gloves on your hands, and you take samples with a tool which you sterilize after each use. What has happened? Has archaeology changed so much?

Małgorzata Kot (archaeologist): Well… there is just one answer… the context. In archaeology, the context is the most important. An artefact – a flint point, bronze fibula, pottery rattle, or any other object – does not deliver any information without its context. They are dead items which we can analyse and we do it, but they do not tell any story. The whole story is hidden in the context, in the one in which it was buried in the ground and in the one in which we, archaeologists, find a given artefact. After all, a rattle found in a shaman’s grave will tell a different story from a rattle found in a child’s grave or in a potter’s workshop.

The context has always been important to us, but the manner of its analysis has changed over the last 100 years. In the past it was believed that associated artefacts are the context for the artefact of interest. They were compared, typologies and systems of development and alterations were established. Later, when we understood that layers containing the artefacts are also an important source of information, we began to analyse them in more detail. We tracked the course of layers, pits dug in them, remains of old structures. In addition to that, we started to collect data on the places of discovery of artefacts, as well as analyse their distribution and concentrations. Such documentation is called the archaeological plan and it is still prepared.

Today, however, especially in cave research, the context means much more than that to us. All the soil that we dig is a source of data. All the micro- and macro-remains found in sediments might deliver information regarding the environmental conditions, animals dwelling in the cave, vegetation in its vicinity, and, above all, the people and their activity. We can analyse the DNA left in the sediments and look for genetic material of humans and various species of animals and plants. We can analyse chemical compounds: look for evidence for burning, but also for sterols present in droppings. After such an analysis we are now able to establish whether people occupied the cave in the period when a particular layer was deposited, even if we cannot find any artefacts. We can look for plant pollen and identify the vegetation growing near the cave in a given time span. We can also observe the sediment itself and conclude whether sediments or artefacts were shifted from place to place. It is particularly important if we want to study concentrations of artefacts or bones and identify areas of different types of human activity e.g., in caves, on this basis. All that is done to analyse the layers alone, but if we discover a grave, the number of analyses increases exponentially.

CB: You’d like to sample the whole sediment for further analyses, right?

MK: Sometimes I’d love to do it [she laughs]. It bears so much information. I also remember that when I dig, I destroy the context. Each sample not taken is a lost piece of information. Well, now it is my turn. 100 years ago you would not have cared to show up at the trench. I would have delivered any recovered bones to your office and you would have analysed them there. 50 years ago I would have taken a soil sample of each layer for you, sent the samples to the laboratory, where you would have floated them yourself to check whether there were any small bones in any of them. And now? All the soil that we dug was collected in labelled bags. In the base you’ll put on your rubber boots and you’ll be standing with the hose all days, floating the sediment on sieves with mesh size smaller than 1 mm. Then we’ll spend evenings with tweezers in our hands, collecting the tiny bones of rodents, frogs and snakes, mussel shells, charcoals and artefacts. I will ask you the same question: what has happened? Has palaeontology changed so much too?

CB: Yes, definitely. In the past, bones themselves were a context in the eyes of palaeontologists. A mammoth was a mammoth. It was not important what layer it was discovered in. Even if it had been found in a medieval hearth, it was obvious that the mammoth was not dated to the Middle Ages. Apart from that, we were not so much interested in the chronology as in changes in morphology – the appearance of the animals in time. The approach started to change gradually as technological innovations appeared, together with new research equipment. We began to use tomography, or even X-ray. I remember when we went to a dentist and asked for an X-ray of a tooth from the site of Isernia La Pineta. We supposed it was a human tooth and we wanted to check that.

MK: The dentist must have been surprised.

CB: At first he was, but then he got very excited when we told him that the tooth was 600 thousand years old and might be of human origin. This is how we discovered the oldest human tooth in Italy. But there is more to that than just new technologies. These days, statistics is also important. A huge sample of rodent bones, that is of animals which are very sensitive to any climate change, allows me to precisely establish the environmental conditions in the vicinity of a given cave in a given period. However, I need a lot of bones for that. Hence the flotation of all sediments and all layers.

MK: But why are there so many rodent bones in caves? Do mice live in caves?

CB: No, these bones get into the caves in the pellets regurgitated by birds which inhabit caves. Some birds, e.g., owls and eagle-owls, often build their nests at the entrances to caves and hunt rodents in their vicinity. The hunting range of these birds reaches about 3 km. This means that the rodents I examine are remains of the diet of the birds of prey in question. Well, there are not only rodents, but also bones of smaller birds, insectivorous mammals, amphibians and reptiles.

MK: That is to say, not only us archaeologists practically had to set up a laboratory in the trench in order to avoid losing the context.

CB: Yes, my laboratory starts on the sieve which I fill with soil and float the material. In the past, when the samples were small, it was possible to do that in the lab. But today, when we float the whole sediment, this is done practically at the site, or very close to it.

MK: Once I counted that when we excavated a trench of a 2-square metre surface area in Tunel Wielki Cave we extracted 2100 bags of soil – it was about 20 tonnes in total.

CB: In the past we would have just thrown it all onto a heap and then into the trench again. But now we take it to our base, float it there with sieves and dry what stays in them, use magnifying glass to collect even the smallest fragments of bones and artefacts. So much work! Do you think it’s worth it?

MK: Of course, it is! And this what we are going to write about in successive texts on Archeowieści. My glasses got foggy because of this mask. Could you pass me another tube?

Pobieranie prób ziemi do analiz DNA obecnego w sedymentach. Maska i rękawice chronią przed zanieczyszczeniem próbki materialem genetycznym osoby ją pobierającej. Narzędzie, którym posługuje się archeolog, jest przed każdym pobraniem dezynfekowane alkoholem i wypalane płomieniem © M. Leloch, na licencji CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Sampling of soil for analyses of DNA remaining in sediments. The mask and gloves prevent contamination with genetic material of the person who takes the sample. The tool used by the archaeologist is sterilized with alcohol and burned with fire before each sample is taken
© M. Leloch, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence
Autorzy tekstu przy północno-wschodnim otworze wejściowym do Jaskini Ciasnej © M. Bogacki, na licencji CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Authors of the text at the north-eastern entrance to Ciasna Cave
© M. Bogacki, na licencji CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence


Małgorzata Kot – an archaeologist. She is fascinated by Neanderthals as well as their relations with Denisovians and modern humans. She conducts her research in the western piedmonts of the Tian Shan in Central Asia. She also studies caves in the Cracow-Częstochowa Upland, which can reveal more interesting stories than just the secrets of the last Neanderthals.


Claudio Berto – palaeontologist; his greatest passion are small quaternary mammals (rodents, insectivores and bats from the period spanning from 2.6 mya to modern times). His main research interests focus on reconstruction of the past climate and natural environment on the basis of remains from archaeological sites. He is also interested in evolutionary trends in populations of small mammals.

He has published papers about remains of mammals from the Apennine Peninsula and Cracow-Częstochowa Upland.


Research Gate: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Claudio-Berto

ORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-3354-582X


More texts by this author

This text was funded by project entitled “From caves to public: A series of popular science articles published on the archeowieści.pl blog, showing a multidisciplinary approach in archaeology, based on the results of our researches in the Ojców Jura” from Inicjatywa Doskonałości – Uczelnia Badawcza programme. Research on the caves of the Sąspowska Valley was funded by the National Science Centre, project: SONATA BIS 2016/22/E/HS3/00486.


Kot, M., Gryczewska, N., Berto, C., Wojenka, M., Szeliga, M., Jaskulska, E., Fetner, R., Krajcarz, M., Wertz, K., Zarzecka-Szubińska, K., Krajcarz, M.T., Moskal-del Hoyo, M., Leloch, M. and Jakubczak, M. Thirteen cave sites: settlement patterns in Sąspów Valley, Polish Jura. „Antiquity” 2019, vol. 93, issue 371: e30, doi: 10.15184/aqy.2019.155

Project website: https://www.dolinasaspowska.uw.edu.pl


Editor: A.B.

Proof-reading: A.J.



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