Book Review: Deconstructing Context edited by Demetra Papaconstantinou

The new issue of EJA (9.1) features a shortened version of Geoff Carver’s review of Deconstructing Context: A Critical Approach to Archaeological Practice, edited by Demetra Papaconstantinou. The full review is here published below the fold.

Demetra Papaconstantinou. Deconstructing Context: A Critical Approach to Archaeological Practice. (Oxford: Oxbow, 2006,.x + 214 pp., pbk, ISBN 1-84217-204-2)

Although use of the word “deconstructing” in the title hints at this book’s contents, this shouldn’t intimidate anyone still threatened by “theory.” Most of the 11 papers collected in this volume deal with aspects of context which are quite down-to-earth, use concrete examples, and largely avoid the fashionably obtuse jargon that many of us find so tiresome.

Derived from a session at the 8th Annual EAA Conference in Thessaloniki in 2002, these are not the session proceedings, rather “a more structured discussion” by “contributors… chosen on the basis of their research topics and background in order to cover the whole spectrum of archaeological excavation.”
The aim was to present the “whole spectrum” from specialists to research design and reconstruction, and to emphasise “types of material usually marginalised in archaeological research and rarely recorded in contextual terms.”

In archaeology, contextual analysis aims at identifying and interpreting formation processes. Several papers could also be seen as part of ongoing debates over analytical scale in archaeology: attempts to bridge the gap between micromorphological studies of individual contexts and large-scale research designs suitable for investigating an entire site or a landscape.

In the introductory paper – “Archaeological context as a unifying process” – Demetra Papaconstantinou faces the unenviable task of providing the historical background of the method and theory relevant to the rest of the papers. By sacrificing much for the sake of brevity, such overviews inevitably run the risk of either being too obscure and complicated to be easily followed by the uninitiated, or so oversimplified that others will quibble over fairly minor details. In this case she covers material which will already be familiar to readers of Trigger, Hodder, Harris and – more recently – Gavin Lucas. As these names – and the fact that all of Demetra’s sources are English-language – indicate, this is largely an Anglo-American perspective, one that fails to recognise divergent methodological developments in other traditions (a theme of a session at the Cracow conference). A comparative look at the role contextual analysis has played in other disciplines might also have been helped locate this all in a wider… context.

Catherine M. Cameron’s “Ethnoarchaeology and contextual studies” looks at how ethnoarchaeological analogy can be used to interpret site formation processes, specifically discard and abandonment. The theory here is mostly derived from Binford and Schiffer, but the paper’s real value is probably in providing an overview of the results of some interesting ethnoarchaeological studies underlining significant differences between how sites are formed, and how they are usually interpreted. The post-processual emphasis on ritual complicates things even more than Schiffer could have foreseen.

In “From animals and food in space to bones in context: social zooarchaeology of the Neolithic farming settlements,” Arkadiusz Marciniak argues that pervious Neolithic faunal studies were too simplistic, based largely on comparisons of relative proportions of species represented in assemblages. He offers a “social zoological” interpretation, sensitive to smaller-scale issues of areas within a site or within structures, but perhaps relying a little too much on speculation inspired by social theorists like Lefebvre and Bourdieu. How do – or even: how can – we know (for example) that “in the early LBK… there was almost no room for individuality to be articulated independently”? or that the patterns he describes couldn’t simply be functional, or the result of bias due to relatively small samples?

Writing about analysis “at the level of particular features, its parts and/or layers,” Marciniak is writing about this entity that in current British archaeological usage is called a “context.” This is the smallest analytical unit: a stratigraphic unit, a layer, a part of a feature. But in this context he cannot write the word “context” without creating an ambiguity that Demetra – perhaps – should have resolved, somehow, since (so far as I can tell) it exists only in British usage (and not in German Befund or Dutch spoor, for example).

Katerina Skourtopoulou’s “Questioning spatial contexts: the contribution of lithic studies as analytical and interpretative bodies of data” is difficult in a number of ways. First, the jargon – dealing with agency – is fairly dense, the product of a roundabout way of saying things that seems to be a necessary outcome in any discussion of agency. Stereotypically, people don’t just “do” things, they “engage” or “participate” in certain patterns of behaviour. And, although agency theory itself is a good remedy for all those normative models of cultures and laws and systems theory – bringing the level of analysis down to that of individuals as free agents – this seems to be undone by convoluted and counterproductive verbal constructions.

The paper itself examines the distribution of lithic tools and debitage across a site in Greece, inferring that different types and densities reflect not functional but rather symbolic – or ritual – processes. In some ways it attempts to answer questions about why anyone would throw away all the useful tools and raw materials we recover. I, personally, have never been all that convinced by assumptions that ancient toolmakers were either so clumsy or dirty as to let so much valuable work (in terms both of raw materials and energy/time invested) simply be swept into the nearest trash pit.

Katerina suggests that this is wrong, and offers an alternate interpretation, one that sees ritual – structured – disposal as a form of renewing and maintaining ties with the past. She contrasts this with tell settlements, where the past is visible in the ruins under the occupants’ feet. It’s an interesting hypothesis, opening any number of paths of interpretation. But – being as sceptical as I am of all social theorising and so on – I’m left wondering if… this inferred need to renew and maintain ties to the past isn’t in some way a projection of our interests, as archaeologists, onto the material we’re studying. Granted, tradition and ethnic identity and sense of place and veneration for ancestors have their place in real life, too, but it’s almost as if we’ve come to the point where we’re arguing that ancient peoples used material remains to express their cultural differences just to make our jobs easier…

Or – to put it another way – consider habitas in “modern” life: how much ritual is there in our waste-disposal activities?

Maybe my problem is that I’m old enough to remember when “ritual” was an explanation of last resort, almost like admitting failure to come up with something more… processual.

In some ways, Carole McCartney’s article – “The meaning of context for changing interpretations of the Cypriot Aceramic Neolithic” – would have made an ideal introductory chapter for anyone still afraid of words like “deconstructing.” The language is clear and free of jargon, and the paper as a whole reads sufficiently like any “standard” journal article to seem non-threateningly familiar, while giving a clear example of the benefits of contextual analysis.

Carole shows how initial assumptions can lead to false interpretations, while closer, contextual reanalysis leads to new interpretation. She notes, for example, that – unlike ceramics – stone tools are often subject to functional – but not typological – analysis. While this may identify activity areas within a site, it does little for chronology, since function is not datable. She tries to remedy this through stratigraphic analysis (specifically taking evidence of primary and secondary deposits and post-depositional disturbance into account) and intra-site comparison.

“Material culture and the value of context: a case study from Marki, Cyprus,” by Jennifer M. Webb, compares the distribution of complete and broken fragments of grinding stones across a site. Since these represent fairly large investments in time and effort to prepare, and are heavy enough that they aren’t going to move much on their own after having been discarded, they would provide a good control for studying the use and discarding of other artifacts, if they weren’t also such potentially useful sources of recyclable raw material.

Jonathon Last continues the themes of use and reuse in “Potted histories: towards an understanding of potsherds and their contexts.” He looks at sherds in light of a number of issues currently discussed in British archaeology (the difference between depositional and interpretive contexts, separation of recording and analysis, even the social context within which archaeology is done, etc.), issues which often seem to be dismissed as navel-gazing in the world outside.

This is a mistake, however, since many of these issues raise significant questions about the meaning of – for example – typologies (whether they are good indicators of cultural or chronological differences). Noting, for example, that conventions of drawing artifact profiles for dating purposes often result in idealised forms not really representative of what was actually found, Jonathon shows how – among other things – this practice tends to overlook the fact that sherds were often used after pots were broken, and thus show different use-histories.
Similarly, aspects of spatial distribution which suggest possible symbolic meanings for sherds – burial, return to earth? – are often overlooked during excavation.

In “Counting sherds at Neopalatial Petras, Siteia, east Crete,” Metzxia Tsipopoulou also examines whether spatial distribution reflects usage or post-depositional processes. The context in this case is a building abandoned after having been damaged by an earthquake, and – besides identifying activity areas within the building and how the assemblage was shaped by the processes of abandonment – part of her interest in context is as a means for comparing results from other structures.

In “Hypothetical approaches and realities: research strategies in defining space and context,” Mehmet Özdoğan critically examines excavation strategies. Specifically, he contrasts excavation results with expectations based on the distribution of surface finds, and results from “traditional” excavation trenches vs. those from larger, open areas.

Traditionally there seems to have been an assumption that sites could be taken apart, reduced to a series of separate features, and that the reassembled whole would then be more than just the sum of these parts.

But we’re beginning to recognise that it doesn’t always work this way, a point echoed – inadvertently – by the discussion of complex themes taken apart and examined by different authors writing separate chapters.

In “Reconstructions: materialized narratives,” Konstaninos Vouzaxakis looks at the context of presentation: how reconstructions and interpretations reflect their purpose. He starts with an apparent paradox: the Palace of Knossos being closed for repairs, not to the original archaeological remains, but to Evans’ reconstruction, which has itself become an historical monument.

A similar process is seen in the use of GIS and Virtual Reality. Both can be used as analytical tools, but – because of their potential for combining information derived from many different sources and their apparent realism – they should also force us (among other things) to take a good hard look at data quality.
“Archaeology as the investigation of the contexts of humanity” by John C. Barrett provides a suitable closing piece. It is philosophical, contrasting Binford’s Middle Range and Schiffer’s Behavioural theories.

Like Özdoğan, Barrett deals with the problem that the research questions you start with often lead you to find what you want to see. If you want to see patterns, laws, structures in your evidence, then you will find them. This implies that we should avoid questions of – for example – motivation: why people do/did things, what actions “meant,” and concentrate instead on identifying the context within which actions are/were done. He closes by considering the contemporary context of Stonehenge and the archaeological context of a nearby pit, the Coneybury Anomaly.

I would like to close with a couple of comments that – since they could be directed at any number of texts – I feel somewhat guilty addressing to this book in particular. But since this is a book about context, maybe it is appropriate to take the context – publication in book form, with all that this implies – into consideration.

Over the years I have noticed an increasing number of errors in publications. I don’t know whether this is due to economic reasons, declining educational standards, my own interest in the matter (seeing what I want to see), or the fact that technology allows everyone to produce their own books, but…

Someone should have done a better job of editing Marciniak, at least. Native speakers of Slavic languages have a hard time putting articles (the/a) into English texts. While a few strategic absences lends a certain literary quality – a feeling for the native language – if too many are missing, then you start to feel sorry for the author.

Similarly, the book suffers from a problem common to edited volumes and conference sessions in that – however inclusive – the whole rarely seems to live up to its full potential, somehow. The result is like a mosaic, composed of individual pieces, which seem to suggest a whole, until you look too closely, and then it all seems to fall apart.

The idea itself is good: bring in a variety of opinions, look at the problem from a variety of perspectives. But I am reminded – ultimately – of the story of the blind men and the elephant: each touches and describes a different part – trunk, tusk, tail, ear – but together they don’t quite describe an elephant.

This is ironic, given the way contextual analysis is intended to bridge the fragmented archaeological landscape, where specialist reports are written in isolation: the ceramics people are unaware of what the faunal folk are doing, etc. While this production-line approach may lead to a certain efficiency, contextual thinking means to bring all these divergent strands of information together, and ultimately enrich the whole process.

One reason why this doesn’t happen may result from the sometimes necessary use of specialised language. Still using Marciniak’s paper as an example, his writing may be a little too technical for readers unfamiliar with faunal analysis; his references to – for example – a “marrow index” and weathering stages “1” and “0,” go unexplained. As with Papaconstantinou’s introductory paper, some degree of specialised background knowledge is assumed of the reader, and a balance must be found between being overly detailed or trivial.

Ultimately, this might not be a problem of authorship or even editorial control, but rather reflect the fact that
there are big ideas here, ideas too big to be explored within the contexts of a 20-minute lecture or short article. And I know it’s not fair to single out this book especially, when this is such a common failing, but in this case I almost want to say that the authors – and editor – should have followed Vouzaxakis’ lead and taken the context of their final presentation into account. Maybe the editor could have worked harder to tie everything together, to weave all these various threads to create not a mosaic but a tapestry. Since Demetra did a good job with the introduction, touching on most of the themes discussed in the following papers, maybe the individual authors could have worked more closely together to reinforce and underline each others’ contributions…?

Because I was deliberately looking for them, these threads – this connective structure, or leitmotif – were a little more evident on my second reading, but still subtle. They need to be nurtured, accented, highlighted in some way; tied together…

I don’t know what the solution is, but it seems that this book – like so many others – is just missing that little something that would transform it from merely being just another good collection of interesting pieces into… a living, breathing elephant.

Which is a round-about way of saying that – although I liked the individual pieces, and found the whole to gave me a lot of ideas (especially once I’d noticed more connections between the pieces going through the second time) – in the end I still felt that I was missing something. And maybe what I’m missing is something that – if I wasn’t writing a review and paying more attention than usual – I normally wouldn’t notice. It’s just that – in this case – tantalizing glimpses scattered here and there throughout the pages (the Binford-Schiffer dynamic alluded to, questions of data quality and scale of analysis, functional vs. “social” interpretations, etc., plus promises made on the back cover and in the introduction), raised my expectations, got me thinking… but in the end thinking not so much about archaeological contexts, strangely, but rather about the nature of books, and the formalised rituals involved in lecturing at conferences.

In short, this volume is a good contribution to an interesting and important discussion, one really worth exploring, but not quite the masterpiece I’d really like it to be.

Geoff Carver
University at Buffalo
The State University of New York, USA

The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in European Journal of Archaeology, 9/1, 2006 by Sage Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © European Association of Archaeologists and SAGE Publications Ltd, year of publication. It is available at:

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