The Importance of Context

This past weekend, I was fortunate enough to be able to travel with the Women’s Basketball team here at MSU.  Their first and second round of the NCAA tournament took us to Maryland, and even better, a trip to Washington D.C.  For those of you who have never been to DC, it is basically an archaeologist’s dream.  With all the Smithsonian Institutions around, and all free of charge, there is plenty do and explore.  However, I found one thing that was missing.  Where was the context?

The importance of context has been pounded into our brains, and will most likely continue to be pounded into our brains for the rest of the semester.  Most students will realize that this is because the context gives the artifact importance, and go along with their day.  However, I do not think the importance of context can be fully grasped until one visits an institution such as the Smithsonians.

As I wandered and explored the exhibits, I often found myself aimlessly gazing at the objects available.  Hey look, that’s a coat used in the Revolutionary War.  Cool… Wow, that is a skeleton of an early human.  Pretty neat. As these thoughts came and faded from my mind, I realized something in common with them all.  There was no context.  These were just artifacts, or more commonly replicas, in a museum.  The meaning, the importance, the relationship with all other artifacts was not present.  All of the wonderful information that comes from context was compacted into a single feeling of that’s kinda cool.

But that singular, compact feeling left me sad.  The archaeologist inside of me was looking for all the little details, the relationships, and the context of the artifacts.  I was searching for a deeper meaning, that not even the Smithsonians alone could offer me.

As we all move on with our careers, whether they be in archaeology or not, I hope that this true meaning of context hits you.  Without context, these artifacts are simply antiquities, a collection for the rich and powerful to keep.  That is not what archaeology is about.  I hope that the non-archaeologists among you remember this, and search for the context from all sources possible.  And I urge the archaeologists among us to remember the importance of context.  Without it, all science of archaeology is lost, and the once great pieces of the past turn into a collection on some shelf, lost with time.

2 thoughts on “The Importance of Context

  1. It is amazing that you got the chance to go to Washington D.C and check out the Smithsonian, an archaeologist’s haven. A chance I wish I got when I visited D.C two years ago. And you are completely right, context is what makes archaeology and gives meaning to every artifact and exhibit in the incredible museum and its importance is drilled into every archaeologist during their education. And that is true, when just wandering through a museum like the Smithsonian without a guide or reading the information next to some exhibits, you’re just viewing these amazing objects and exciting exhibits without being presented with the context that makes the artifacts meaningful to archaeologists and the general public. And taking in all of the exhibits can make all of them seem to mix together and combine into this one interesting place, but doesn’t make you see everything individually with its context and the meaning behind every item. And that can leave a person with sadness, emptiness, or the feeling that something is missing when looking back at this conglomeration of exhibits, like you said. Context is what makes these artifacts come back to life for the people of the present to be transported back into a different and exotic time and place. This fact cannot be lost as it is put on display at a museum. Context is vital to the remembrance of the past and gives color to these black and white times for the colorful present for the general public.

  2. I agree with you in this post, Brian. Context is very important to appreciating and understanding a piece of archeology. The appreciation one gets for seeing an artifact its natural environment can never compare to seeing it behind a glass case. There is a world of difference between being on sight at an Egyptian ruin and standing inside the museum. Not only are you able to see the artifact as is and appreciate it within its full glory, you are also experiencing conditions similar to the humans who lived there before you. The extra connection makes the artifact so much more timeless and so much more alive, and no place can capture that better than the point of origin. This however, is true for many other things as well. No zoo animal will compare to seeing one in the wilderness. No documentary can capture firsthand what it feels like to be in another nation. A photograph will never hold a candle to the memory of being at the place in which it was taken. Humans are a summation of all of their sensations and by removing an artifact from its origin you are removing the culmination of all the sensations associated with that artifact. Though everyone can appreciate seeing and witnessing a piece of history in a museum, I feel it is important that they understand exactly how much can never be housed within that structure. In a way, that is the true beauty of archeology when compared to the simple studying of historical past times. A guest at a museum will get to witness history but an archeologist will live it. It was a very interesting perspective to read, and it’s nice to see something from out of class being discussed within the concepts and perspectives we have learned.

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