Archaeological Context

Today’s lecture in addition to our text go over a valuable point, what happens to archaeological sites when modern constructions threaten them. The building of the Aswan High Dam stirred a flurry of activity from archaeologists across the globe that converged onto the banks of the Nile to excavate sites before they would be covered by Lake Nasser.  These scholars who would generally take many field seasons to properly excavate sites now had a definite deadline. In addition to a strict deadline, there were further issues with the Nubian Campaign’s political aspect (i.e. What archaeologist can excavate and where?, Who should serve on committees to determine territories for different teams?, etc.). Wilson writes in 1967 that these archaeologists serving Egypt and Nubia were, “united by a common goal: the rescue of a maximum of evidence within a very short space of years (p. 270).”

In this article, Wilson (1967) continues to describe the intensity of the work and the collaborations between international teams of archaeologists. It is incredible to think about the impact of this Nubian Campaign saving Abu Simbel as well as so many other lesser known sites. The sheer volume of work done in such a short timeframe is astounding and the consideration of the language and cultural barriers crossed really makes the project exemplary.

However, some individuals may argue that salvage operations like this are not good science that hurried excavations lack the proper documentation and contextual evidence warranted by the site. Although the mantra of context has been seared into my brain, I whole-heartedly disagree with this view point. While it may be true that salvage operations are not the best science, but sometimes it is the best science that can occur. In cases like the Aswan High Dam as well as highway expansion in our own backyard, it does not make sense to throw your hands in the air and proclaim that if an excavation isn’t  afforded ample time it should not be completed at all. So many times, archaeologists are called upon to do salvage operations to glean as much information from a site in a short amount of time. Archaeologists and bioarchaeologists can still provide some light into the past through these salvage operations, even though much information may be lost.

Wilson, John (1967). The Nubian Campaign: An Exercise in International Archaeology. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 111, 268-271. Available at :

2 thoughts on “Archaeological Context

  1. I agree with your thoughts about emergency excavations. Even without the information that context can provide, saving artifacts efficiently isn’t a total loss. In early archaeology before everything was documented so carefully, all kinds of historically important artifacts were found. When amateur archaeologists and looters removed objects from a site without using the most scientific approach, the discoveries still had weight and meaning. Archaeologists and historians could analyze the artifacts alone and learn much even without the significance of context.

    Even though it would be preferable to take time to really do a site justice, I think that archaeologists in current times can still make something of great finds in times of need. When time is of the essence, trained archaeologists of today would be able to give us more accurate information than the early, untrained archaeologists who still managed to make great discoveries. To me, that knowledge, even if it lacks the usually desired depth, would be worth the fight.

    I also think that this rare opportunity for so many archaeologists to come together and work for the same cause is remarkable and has its own merits. So many professionals of different backgrounds could bring a new complexity to their finds that would benefit scholarly work. This small benefit may not seem enough to mitigate the damages of lost context, but it is certainly a silver lining.

  2. While I whole heartedly agree with both of the previous posts I cannot help but to play devil’s advocate. There are undoubtedly an infinite number of reasons for salvage archaeology. That being said, I think it’s also important to take a minute and consider the negative aspects of salvage archaeology. Salvage archaeology is only used as a last resort. Because of this fact, salvage archaeologists typically work under immense time constraints and may not have the time or the financial support to excavate an archaeological site in its entirety. Without complete excavation and documentation of a site, we are left with an incomplete record of the past. Therefore, salvage archaeology may leave us with a biased view of history. How can we compensate for this archaeological bias? Or is this even a real concern as often times archaeologists don’t excavate an entire site, but instead do random sampling to attempt to draw comprehensive knowledge of the population as a whole. On a similar note, if there are several sites or features that are about to be destroyed by a flood, it is likely that the sites deemed most historically important will be the first, if not only, sites to be excavated. I therefore pose the following question: How do archaeologists rectify which sites (and how much of each site) are excavated during salvage archaeology projects?

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