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The Role of Context in Conservation

February 21st, 2013

The Role of Context in Conservation

 Emily Holley

            Context in archaeology is defined as the physical position and the surrounding set of objects and physical attributes that affect the interpretation and meaning of the object in question (SAA, 1996) . An artifact’s context is usually determined in reference to three primary attributes. It consists of its immediate matrix, which is the material surrounding the artifact, its provenience, the horizontal or vertical position, and its association with other artifacts and materials in the same matrix. Context is extremely important to the archaeological process for determining the significance of every object recovered. But what does context mean to conservators?

            Context, to the conservator, has the same value that it does to the archaeologist. Keeping an object in its original environment as much as possible, helps to retain its meaning and value. Once the significance is established, the conservator can judge how best to proceed with treatment of the material. For example, the discovery of a Native American projectile point is fairly common, but the context of the object can help to interpret more about the artifact. If the projectile point was found embedded in the rib bone of a bison, one can infer more about the scenario that brought the point there. Context can help a conservator to tell more of the object’s story and determine where to go from there.

            The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) has a code of ethics and guidelines for professional conservators. More than a few points in the code of ethics are in regard to respecting the integrity and cultural significance of an object. Context is a major aspect of determining its integrity. Without knowing the context of an artifact, an archaeologist or a conservator cannot know the truth of the object. The guidelines state, “All actions of the conservation professional must be governed by an informed respect for the cultural property, its unique character and significance, and the people or person who created it.” (AIC, 1994). It is through the context of the object that this respect is even possible.

AIC. 1994. Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice. http://www.conservation-us.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=page.viewPage&pageID=858&nodeID=1 (Accessed January 26, 2013).

SAA. 1996. What is Archaeology? http://www.saa.org/ForthePublic/Resources/EducationalResources/ForEducators/ArchaeologyforEducators/WhatisArchaeology/tabid/1346/Default.aspx (Accessed February 12, 2013).


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