How do you use archaeology?

I have to admit, as someone who doesn’t physically carry out archaeological research, I have been a little unsure of what I have to offer to this awesome project. As I’ve said previously, I have a paltry single season of field experience under my belt, and am highly unlikely to gain any additional experience in the area. However, it was (very helpfully) pointed out to me by another member of the project that, while I may not carry out said research myself, I DO rely on it and engage with it heavily for my own scholarship. So today, I am posting a brief outline of how Assyriologists use archaeology.

Assyriologists frequently focus most of their time and energy on philological research, using ancient texts to better understand the history and culture of the region. The earliest practitioners had an unfortunate habit (common across many fields, I suspect) of divorcing textual evidence from its material and archaeological contexts, viewing the writings of ancient people in isolation from the objects those writing were placed upon, and where they were found by archaeologists. Interestingly, this seems to go hand-in-hand with a prioritization of the written word as a marker of ‘civilization’, over and above other technological advances.

Thankfully, this trend has been reversing for a while, with more and more scholars recognizing that archaeology – and archaeological context – is of vital importance to what we do. We’re moving beyond viewing archaeology and the amazing people who choose to dedicate their lives to it to simply the retrieval of objects for others to study (“Isn’t archaeology wonderful? Without it there would be no texts to translate!”)…which is excellent, as that kind of attitude is both a gross simplification and, frankly, kind of dismissive toward an entire field of study.

Archaeology provides us with the layout of cities, the paths travelled by ancient merchants, the floor-plans of temples, palaces, and houses, all of the various objects and artifacts created and used by ancient peoples – in other words, all of the information used by historians of all varieties to reconstruct the lives and activities of ancient peoples.

For my current research, the most important thing that archaeology provides is findspot data. A findspot is, literally, the spot in which an object was found during excavation. This can provide valuable context for an item’s use and disposal – for example, an inscribed tablet found in a scribal school would have had quite a different purpose to an inscribed tablet founding a royal library. Likewise, an inscribed tablet found in isolation – maybe in the foundation of a building – should be understood differently from those found in archives or libraries. Without some kind of archaeological context, you can’t truly understand what a text was used for and how it should be understood.

School tablet (‘lentil’ form) from Ur and library tablet from Ashurbanipal’s library. Image courtesy of the Ur-Online Project and the Trustees of the British Museum.

The physical form of an object (another piece of information provided by archaeology!) is also of paramount importance to understanding the use of both inscribed and uninscribed objects*. The purpose of an inscription placed upon a clay cone, found embedded in the wall of a temple is quite different to either of the tablets in our previous example. If all you see is a disembodied text, then it’s impossible to understand how the text came to be and what it was used for. By just concentrating on the written word and not the form it takes, or the location in which it was discovered (and what it was found with!), so much information is lost. We rely on archaeologists, and archaeological practices, to provide all of this information.

Inscribed clay cone. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

This is the same for…well, most fields of history, I think! (not that I’m trained in ‘most fields of history’, but you know what I mean). This is how we use archaeology. Unfortunately, however, this kind of information is not always available to us. Early archaeological practices did not always prioritize recording findspots, or noting when a collection of objects was found together. This can make it incredibly difficult for later researchers to piece together what was found where and with what other objects. One excellent exception to this are the excavations from the city of Ur, which have recently been digitized at the Ur-Online Project. In fact, this is one of the key purposes of my dissertation. I’m compiling a large, relational database that takes information about a royal inscription, the object(s) that inscription was placed upon, and the location(s) in which those object(s) were used in order to gain a better understanding of inscriptional practices. As this information is often missing or incomplete, and usually spread across a selection of publications, it’s slow-going. And even slower when you find you’ve missed something crucial -_-

There you go! I hope that was interesting and coherent. I think my brain is being scrambled by data-entry…

*This post, and most of my future posts, will focus on inscribed objects simply because that’s what I’m working on at the moment. Objects without writing are just as important!


    1. That’s an excellent question! The way I’ve seen them used in my field and in Near Eastern archaeology in general is that a context is more of a descriptor – in a religious or residential area of a site, while a findspot is often much more specific. It may include a square number, and (hopefully) allows you to point to a site plan and say “this was found right there, next to that wall and behind that door”.

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