Artifacts and context

Submitted by Sammy Smith (

Archaeologists frequently make the point that artifacts can convey certain kinds of important information, but artifacts found in context can convey so much more information.

What does this distinction mean and why is it important?

What, after all, is context?

In the glossary on this website, context is defined as:

the location or placement of an artifact, feature, or site, including its relationship to other artifacts, features, and the surrounding environment. Context includes the soil around archaeological materials. Sometimes, the context of artifacts is more informative than the artifacts!

Consider a particular kind of stone tool, which we can date to say about 4000 BC based on the material it’s made from and the shape and style of its form. Say we find it with some pottery and other artifacts that we can date to much later, say about AD 500. And that layer is undisturbed, perhaps a midden layer that formed from trash disposed around houses in a village, with no other materials that are so old as the hypothetical stone tool in that midden.

Now, if archaeologists just have the stone tool, perhaps collected from the surface of a plowed field, they think: there’s a 6000-year-old occupation in this spot. (Occupation here refers to a period of use of a particular place on the landscape.)

If however, archaeologists find the stone tool when carefully excavating the midden, recording how undisturbed that layer is, what do they think?

The Shroud of Turin, from the official website.

Artifacts are often taken out of context. Consider the objects in an art museum, say in Atlanta, like a pottery vase from ancient Egypt or a sculpture from a Medieval French church. They are both artifacts and art objects. And they are objects no longer in context, since they’re displayed in a building far from where they were found (or abandoned).

Consider the Shroud of Turin, which is scheduled to be on display in Turin in spring 2010. Writes Victor L. Simpson of the Associated Press, and published in the Washington Post:

At least 1 million reservations from around the world have already poured in to secure three to five minutes to admire the cloth that has fascinated pilgrims and scientists alike, organizers of the April 10-May 23 showing told a news conference in Rome on Wednesday.

The Shroud is an artifact, art object, and “revered by many Christians as Jesus Christ’s burial cloth but described by some as a medieval forgery,” as Simpson notes. He says the earliest secure record of the shroud date to 1354.

The Shroud is being displayed in Turin (Torino). Is it in context? Login and discuss….