Spatial Contexts

Overview #

Spatial contexts are the most important and most common form of context used at Kaymakçı. A spatial context corresponds to a discrete, three-dimensional volume that contains a deposit or a feature. Ideally, a spatial context should contain ONLY the deposit or feature that it describes. For example, say you find a ceramic jug in situ, and wish to remove it as a spatial context. Before you open the context for the jug, you should remove as much sediment around it as possible without destabilizing it, recording said sediment as a separate context (usually as part of the larger context that buried the jug). For the soil filling the jug, you should think carefully about whether it should be removed with the larger context surrounding it, as its own spatial context, or if it should be left in the jug and excavated in the lab. After removing the residual fill deposit and “closing” its spatial context, you should then endeavor to remove only the jug itself, and not any sediment below it. Because spatial contexts record the location of the deposit or object in real space, it is important to avoid moving objects before they are recorded; if an object has been moved at all (which is most of the time), it should be recorded as an approximate context, not a spatial context.

In theory, any time material is removed from an excavation area, it will be recorded as a spatial context. This can be difficult to execute, however, because of the time investment involved. Most small objects—ranging from metal pins, to spindle whorls, to grinding stones—are usually recorded as approximate contexts both for the sake of time-efficiency and because they are often moved from their original situation during excavation. If a particular small objects appears to be in a significant position, however (e.g., if it appears to be in situ or has a significant relationship with other object(s)/feature(s)), it may be worthwhile to record it as a spatial context. It is also common that some sediment is removed during sweeping and remains unrecorded; this is normal, yet you should try to minimize the amount of such undocumented sediment removal.

In addition to providing the three-dimensional spatial information of deposits, spatial contexts also contain samples. The context provides all the spatial information for a sample. It is therefore important to think about how the size or extent of a context might impact the kind of information available for the samples it contains. For example, a spatial context that is 10 cm deep across an entire 19 x 19 m excavation area provides very little horizontal precision for trying to understand the spatial distribution of ceramics within it. In such a case, subdividing stratigraphic layers into separate areas may be called for, even if they are identical in content. Similarly, a context that contains material from both inside and outside a pit provides no mechanism for distinguishing between the sediments and objects found within the pit from those found outside it.

When to Open a Spatial Context #

“Opening” a spatial context can refer to two different actions. One is the creation of a new context entry in the database; this involves recording initial data like the context type (the most common type is “Fill”), sub-type (e.g., “Deposit,” “Positive Feature,” “Negative Feature”), method of excavation, excavation supervisor, and opening date. “Opening” may also refer to when you begin excavating a new spatial context, when you begin to actually remove material from the excavation area. When opening a new spatial context, you should “open” the context in the database before you begin actually excavating the context, so that all necessary data can be recorded properly. (See here for a guide on how to open a spatial context in the database.)

You may also need to open contexts in the lab to represent events in the past that cannot technically be excavated. These events are usually negative features like pit cuts. While the fill of a pit can be excavated as a deposit, the cut that was made to create the pit also needs a spatial context number so that its relationship with other contexts can be recorded, visualized, and interpreted.

When dealing with features (e.g., walls, pits, circular features, hearths), the feature should first be given a group context number to name it. It can then be excavated in a series of spatial contexts. For example, if you encounter a roughly circular arrangement of stones while excavating, you should give it a group context number rather than a spatial context; you will use this number in your notes and day plans to refer to the as-yet-not-fully-defined feature. As you continue excavating and realize, for example, that the feature is comprised of 1) a pit cut, 2) pit fill, and 3) a circular arrangement of stones on top of the pit, each of these components will be given spatial contexts as they are removed or identified (in the opposite order listed above, in this particular example). (See more examples here.) Remember: spatial contexts can be grouped together but can never be subdivided.

When to Close a Spatial Context #

Even if we use spatial contexts to record the process of excavation (and thus they can be considered as “excavation units”), we always aim for them to reflect the formation of the archaeological record (and thus “stratigraphic units”) as much as possible. Each spatial context ideally corresponds to an individual deposit or action. Therefore, a context should be closed when you notice a change in color, texture, inclusions, or any other attribute you find significant. As with the opening of a spatial context, the closing of a spatial context can be represented by multiple actions. The most significant is the taking of a photobatch that spatially records the bottom of the context and from which all spatial data for the context is derived. (In other words, the photobatch is very important!) Closing a context also involves the addition of closing dates and other data to the database, the drawing/archiving of illustrations for day plans, etc.

To think about this from the other direction, if you decide you want to take a photobatch, you must necessarily close the associated spatial context. Spatial contexts should normally be recorded by only one photobatch. Only in exceptional circumstances (to be discussed with a supervisor or leadership) are particular spatial contexts recorded with multiple photobatches.

It is, however, common practice to excavate interesting features in multiple spatial contexts by “unpacking” them into discrete units, allowing increased detail in recording. For example, while excavating a hearth, one might excavate each component (the surface, the rim, the fill, etc.) in separate spatial context (with accompanying separate photobatches). In some cases it might also be beneficial to close a context arbitrarily, either because of a lack of certainty about whether it has changed or not, or perhaps to capture more detail than would be available otherwise (e.g., in a fill with a partially articulated animal skeleton). This approach should be taken only after consultation with supervisors or leadership.

Excavating a “Pause Context” #

The term “pause context” is used to refer to a spatial context that is excavated within a larger context while it is still open. This is most often done to record an in situ object or vessel that is contained by a larger deposit without arbitrarily dividing that larger context; the excavation of a hypothetical jug described above is a good example of a pause context.

Whereas most spatial contexts are represented spatially by only a bottom photobatch, pause contexts are represented by a top photobatch (which separates the volume of the object from the surrounding deposit) and a bottom photobatch (which closes the volume of the object). The top and bottom should be given the same photobatch number so that they are clearly associated; the database allows you to add metadata (e.g., prefix, number of photos) for the top and the bottom separately. It is also recommended that you pause all work on the surrounding deposit while you record and collect the pause context; if this is not possible, ongoing work should be kept far away from the location of the pause context to avoid contamination of the context or its data.

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