Context is Crucial!

Archaeologists need to think about many different contexts when they interpret any ancient object. Because it is sometimes difficult to know what some objects were used for just by looking at them, archaeologists can use evidence such as the archaeological context in which it was found (under the floor, next to a wall, beside an oven), other objects it was found close to (knives, pots, bodies), the functional context in which it was found (in the kitchen, on an industrial site), the cultural context (Egyptian, Phoenician colony in the west), the historical context (Neo-Assyrian, Archaic Greek).

Archaeologists can also look at the site within the landscape to determine generally how it might have functioned. This can also help identify the uses of the objects found there. Archaeologists need to call upon many strands of evidence to reach their conclusions about how the artefacts they find were used by the people who made them.

Let’s take a look at a similar object found in some homes today.

Plastic dolls used for crocheting. From

Plastic dolls used for crocheting. From

Small plastic (usually intended to be female) may be used in different ways around the house. Plastic doll bases, such as the ones below (interestingly without legs, like the Tell Ahmar figurines!) have a multitude of uses. They can be found in toilets, sitting on the cistern dressed in a flouncy dress. The purpose of these dolls appears to be to eradicate the need to have undisguised extra rolls of paper in the toilet. Perhaps this is considered unseemly by some.

Toilet paper doll from

Toilet paper doll from

The same dolls can be found on the beds presumably for decorative purposes, though Laura, from the blog Inherited Values, recalls that her mother gave her the bed doll in the hope that it might encourage Laura to make her bed each morning.

Bed doll. From Inherited Values blog.

Bed doll. From Inherited Values blog.

A final example of the varied uses of this plastic doll bodies is in the baking of special birthday cakes, usually for little girls. Cakes could, of course be served in living or dining rooms, as well as kitchens, but it would be unusual to serve a birthday cake in a bath or bedroom.

Doll cake from

Doll cake from

Thus, the same plastic doll can be found in the kitchen, the bedroom and the toilet of western houses today. The following represents some general thoughts around the issue of physical context in which objects are found and its relationship with use of those objects.

It is clear that the context in which the dolls are used is critical to its purpose though the appearance of each doll, without clothes, is identical. It is possible, of course, that a bed doll could be used in a living room as a decoration, but it would not have the same meaning as the same doll placed on a bed. A bed doll in a living room may be a toy, a collectable, a much-loved gift, a display item or of course, or many other uses but it could not be used as a bed doll without the presence of a bed.

It could still be a bed doll, however a bed doll out of place. Such nuances of context and object usage may be tricky to discern at an archaeological site from a remote period of time.

Houses are living things and objects within them get moved about all the time. Moreover, objects that look the same often do have many uses. A cup in the kitchen holds coffee, at a neighbour’s it is filled with sugar, on the dining room a few daisies from the garden.

So where do all these thoughts leave the archaeologist?

Confused? Cautious? Unable to say anything about object usage from context?

No, I don’t believe all is lost; it is possible and indeed critical to use context as one source of data for the interpretation of figurines. Being aware of how easy it is to interpret physical context according to one’s interpretation of the objects found within it and thereby creating a circular argument for all such objects despite their context is crucial. For me, this was one of the bugbears I constantly faced in my research of ancient figurines from the Near East; figurines are religious and therefore their contexts are cultic. Really?

One context not mentioned in the introduction to this post was personal or individual context and by this I mean the context of the makers’ own identity and lived experienced. The relationship of the person who made the figurine to herself, himself and others is possibly the key context to consider when interpreting figurines. And it nicely takes care of the religious/cultic theory!

But I’ll leave those fun and games for another post!

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Dr Victoria Clayton is author of Visible Bodies, Resistant Selves: The Iron Age Figurines From Tell Ahmar. If you are fascinated by life in the ancient past, let this very readable book take you on a journey back 2600 years to the bustling town of Kar Shalmaneser where Assyrian soldiers, businessmen, craftsmen and slaves lived together and learn who made the figurines and why. Meet their makers and learn their story. Click here for access now.

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Miriam - May 27, 2014

“What an interesting post. I must admit that I had never connected archeology with more contemporary objects but I can see that archeology just seeks to understand more about people through the objects they create. Neither the people nor the objects need to be ancient. Thanks for educating me! ”

    Victoria - May 27, 2014

    Hi Miriam,
    Thanks for dropping by and leaving a comment! Glad you found the post interesting.
    You’re quite right, archaeology is simply trying to understand how people thought and behaved, much like sociology in the present day, but we do it via the medium of the objects left behind.
    I think it’s fun and thought-provoking to imagine one is an archaeologist trying to interpret one’s own house and the things in it. It can highlight the dilemmas that archaeologists face when interpreting the material record. With the example of the plastic dolls, I was trying to demonstrate how difficult it can be to use form alone to interpret human images, but that context must also be considered, albeit context raises even more complex questions!

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