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.