edited by Birger Hjørland and Claudio Gnoli


Archaeology and knowledge organization

by Edmund Lee

Table of contents:
1. Introduction: scope of archaeology and the work of archaeologists
2. The nature of archaeological data
3. Data collection from an archaeological excavation
4. Post-excavation analysis
5. Classification of pottery vessel forms — from data to information
6. Archaeological theory and classification
7. Conclusion

This article outlines an application of knowledge organization in the domain of archaeology. It uses this discipline as an exemplar of the data-information-knowledge pyramid model. It provides a brief overview of the process of data collection from archaeological excavation. It then follows one data type, the pottery found, through the post-excavation process of information gathering. It concludes with an assessment of the challenge of synthesizing and interpretation to extend knowledge of the past from the information from multiple excavations. The perspective is mainly that of U.K. archaeological practice.

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1. Introduction: scope of archaeology and the work of archaeologists

Archaeology is generally defined as the study of past societies through their material remains [1]. These principally fall into two classes: artefacts, including not only tools, equipment, containers, ornaments and so on, but also buildings or other built structures, and ecofacts, animal and plant remains. In modern practice, archaeologists have a broad range of interests, from the very small — for example the trace information contained in ancient DNA or other biomolecules, to the very large — the development of whole landscapes, or the study of the global climate. Archaeology covers all of human and indeed hominid history right up to the present day, and provides knowledge and insight into the development of all aspects of human society.

Field investigation by archaeologists covers a wide range of techniques and research methods [2]. This article focusses on archaeological excavation and the analytical processes that follow on from this. It draws on experience of the author of archaeological practice in the U.K., and reflects broadly practices in use in Europe. Excavation is a useful focus for this case study, as it is the activity that collects primary data for the discipline. Many other aspects of archaeological study could have been included (for example the use of large-scale site distribution maps to develop predictive models of where undiscovered archaeological sites may exist, or the handling of substantial data sets derived from modern laser-based survey techniques). However the intention is to provide a case study of the application of the DIK pyramid model in the core practice of archaeological work.

One relevant → knowledge organization system within the sector, the Thesaurus of Event Types (FISH 2013a) defines excavation as follows: “EXCAVATION Controlled intrusive fieldwork which examines, records and interprets archaeological deposits, features and structures and, as appropriate, retrieves artefacts and ecofact remains within a specified area or site on land or within the inter-tidal zone”.

Archaeological excavation is familiar to non-archaeologists from both documentary and fictional accounts. This research process is provided here to illustrate and assess relevance of the → Data-Information-Knowledge pyramid (Frické 2019) in a practical as opposed to theoretical setting. At its base is the data from excavations, then the information gained through post-excavation analysis (illustrated here with one specific data type — pottery fragments) and ultimately the knowledge derived from synthesis and interpretation of multiple excavations. It concludes with a brief consideration of wisdom as the apex of the archaeological knowledge pyramid.

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2. The nature of archaeological data

The → data from archaeological excavation is the sum total of observations made during the process. This is incomplete and biased in complex ways. Much of the work of the archaeologist is aimed at reducing or allowing for the incomplete and biased nature of the base data in higher-level information and knowledge gathering.

First, from the moment that an artefact is discarded or deliberately buried, the time a building goes out of use, or the death of a human or other organism, natural entropic processes of decay or weathering start to operate. Many materials do not survive more than a few years of burial or exposure to weather except under special conditions, so are rarely available to study. The study of the reasons for, and effect of, the processes by which archaeological sites are formed through deposition and subsequent change is the subject of the sub-discipline of taphonomy [3].

Secondly, contrary perhaps to popular understanding, the selection of which sites are excavated is, in the majority of cases in the U.K. and Europe, determined by the availability of opportunities (for example funding in advance of proposed redevelopment of a site) rather than by a inclusion in a systematic research study. Research led excavations form a very small proportion of recent fieldwork.

Thirdly, the excavation process is itself selective. The choice of what to record, to keep, and to study is to some extent culturally determined by the archaeologists themselves, the resources they have and the academic, social and political context in which they live and work, a point further developed by Burkette (2018).

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3. Data collection from an archaeological excavation

Archaeological excavation destroys most of the evidence it seeks to study. This truth is the underlying principle that guides the choice of the techniques used to excavate and to record what is found. The preparation of a carefully structured and curated, indexed and accessible archive of the data and physical finds and samples from an excavation is the activity that separates archaeology as a discipline from looting and grave robbing. The excavation archive will be the only source of data, information and knowledge that future archaeologists can use to learn about the site.

The process of excavation is to carefully remove and identify, number, document then excavate and make records of the different features found (for example a ditch, a grave, a wall) and deposits (for example the silting of a ditch, the backfill of a grave, the structure of a wall). In recording systems in use in the UK, these features and deposits are collectively referred to as contexts and recorded individually. This practice works well in situations where there is complex and definable separate layers and features, such as urban areas where sites have been developed and redeveloped many times. Other practices in use include the excavation of set depths of archaeological deposit (a spit) across the whole of an excavated area in one operation, treated as a single recording unit. This is particularly appropriate where there is very little differentiation between archaeological deposits, and provides a clear view of the horizontal distribution of artefacts. It is useful for example in excavating a site mainly visible as scatters of stone tools in wind-blown sand deposits. As excavation proceeds artefacts and ecofacts found within or associated with the contexts, along with any other useful samples are recovered, documented, stabilised or cleaned, labelled with their site and context reference and bagged for storage.

Approaches vary but the data from a typical archaeological excavation will include:

  • Context records, usually on a standardised form. Over time many different versions of such forms exist, and co-ordinating the results from different recording forms is one of the challenges of using archaeological data. However, core details recorded will include: a unique reference number; attributes such as dimensions; location on the site; and the composition of the → soil or other constituents. These will combine some aspects of free text description and terms from established standard classification schemes (for example Munsell soil colour charts [4]). Crucially the relationship of one context to others around it is also recorded (above, below, touching etc.). This provides a stratigraphy [5] of the site, with the general assumption that layers that are overlain by other layers are older, and those above, higher up in the stratigraphic sequence, are more recent. This provides relative dating for the artefacts contained within the layers or contexts.
  • Measured plan (Wikipedia contributors 2018c) and section (Wikipedia contributors 2018d) drawings, photographs and other images (for example 3D scans), used to show the location of the site, and the location within the site of the contexts recorded, their relationships one to another, and their nature (colour, texture etc.).
  • Records of the artefacts found within contexts, either at the level of individual artefacts of particular interest, or as quantification by measures such as weight or number.
  • Records of samples taken for detailed study off-site, for example for radiocarbon dating, or pollen study.
  • The artefacts and ecofacts themselves recovered by excavation, generally cleaned, permanently labelled with context and sitecode identifiers to record their → provenance, then packaged and stored to preserve them for future study.

Altogether, an excavation may well produce hundreds or thousands of such individual records. A modern excavation to current professional standards in the U.K. (Archaeology Data Service 2015) will have a data management plan in place to ensure records are created properly, stored safely and can be accessed later. A data management plan will cover:

  • types of data being produced
  • file structure, versioning and naming strategy
  • metadata to be collected
  • standards and quality assurance measures
  • ethical and legal issues or restrictions on data sharing
  • copyright and intellectual property rights of data
  • data management roles and responsibilities
  • plans for sharing data between project members
  • data storage and back-up measures during the project
  • costs and resources needed
  • long term archiving of, and access to, data

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4. Post-excavation analysis

Post-excavation analysis [6] will typically include identification, classification and quantification of artefacts and animal remains, and interpretation of the contexts identified. It is essentially a specialist data management and organization exercise, though many practicing archaeologists may not think of it in those terms. This takes the data from the excavation and produces more structured information. Where resources and project-schedules allow, post-excavation work may start while the excavation is in progress, so that this information can be used to guide the investigation.

Post excavation work aims to gather information to answer questions. These might include what date were the contexts on the site deposited? What activities were taking place at that time? Which contexts on the site can be grouped to suggest the presence of former buildings or structures? Which contexts can be shown to be contemporary to suggest phases of development of the site over time? What connections did this site have to its immediate area, or to sites further away? What was life like for those who lived, worked, died and were buried here?

The excavation and post-excavation work will eventually create an archive consisting of the records created by excavation and post excavation work, and the artefacts and ecofacts themselves. This may be deposited in a museum, with the excavation archive providing the detailed provenance for those artefacts or ecofacts accessioned into the museums own record system.

Good practice is that these datasets derived from excavation and post-excavation are made available through deposition with specialist archives, for example, the Archaeology Data Service based at York University in the U.K. (http://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/). KO specialists are sometimes involved, as in the cases of Jean-Claude Gardin's team which developed a special indexing language (Moscati 2016) and of University of South Wales Hypermedia Research Group which develops automatic indexing procedures for integrated archaeological information (Binding et al. in press).

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5. Classification of pottery vessel forms — from data to information

Pottery, or fired ceramic of other types, can last for thousands of years in a wide variety of conditions from scorching deserts to the sea floor. Pottery is for this reason the most frequently found class of artefact from archaeological excavation. As a useful container which can be adapted for cooking, storage, packaging for transport, and as a decorative art form, pottery vessels are also fundamental to understanding the production, trade networks and social interactions in many past societies. The process of interpretation of pottery therefore makes a good illustration of the post-excavation process.

At the level of basic data collection, artefacts recovered from an excavation need to be identified, to support further analysis. Typically, for pottery, this will include identifying the form of the original vessel. Many other detailed approaches to pottery study are in use, for example to characterise the ceramic fabric it is made of, to identify the origin of the pottery from the petrology of inclusions in the fabric, or to assess use of the pot from preserved organic residues. However, the basic step of identifying and recording what form of vessel a pottery sherd comes from illustrate the challenges.

For documentation of vessel forms in the U.K, specialist → thesauri (Dextre Clarke 2017) have been developed to index records of artefacts such as pottery. One such is the FISH Archaeological Objects Thesaurus (FISH 2013b) Thesaurus of Archaeological Objects, originally developed in the 1990’s by the Museums Documentation Association in the U.K, now part of the Heritage Data suite of linked data vocabularies for Cultural Heritage managed on behalf of the U.K. heritage sector by the Forum on Information Standards in Heritage (http://www.heritagedata.org). This provides indexing and retrieval both by vessel form (e.g. rim sherd) and functional type (e.g. flagon), such that both terms might be applied to a particular pottery sherd recognised as being part of the rim of a flagon.

However, to generate useful information from the pottery, archaeologists often have need to analyse with greater analytical discrimination than can be achieved with indexing by thesaurus terms. → Classification (Hjørland 2017), as applied to pottery vessel forms is used to help create information from the data. Within archaeological discourse these classification schemes are typically known as typologies, type lists, or type series, though the terms are often applied loosely. Adams provides a useful overview, distinguishing classification as a set of formal categories (which applies to use of thesaurus terms for example) from typology in which “a field of data is divided up into categories that are all defined according to the same set of criteria, and that they are mutually exclusive” (Adams 2001). An example of typology in this usage is the ‘Dragendorff’ classification of Roman period Samian ware vessel types, named after Hans Dragendorff, dating from 1895, and still in use (see for example Willis 2005). A vessel will be assigned either type Dragendorff type 27 or a type 29, not both.

Figure 1: Illustration of the seriation approach — the example shown is fictitious

As an example of the application of vessel form classification, the analytical technique of seriation was developed by the archaeologist Flinders Petrie in 1899 (cf., Ihm 2005) [7]. Petrie needed to draw out dating information from a comparison of the form of pottery vessels found in contexts from different parts of a cemetery site at Diospolis Parva in Egypt, excavated in the 1880s. The technique assumes that certain styles of vessel come into fashion, are used for a time, and then become obsolete, forming a bell-curve distribution of frequency over time (Figure 1). Analysis of the presence or absence, or relative frequency of different vessel forms occurring together could give a relative dating of the contexts studied. Petrie achieved this through the use of cardboard strips, used to record the presence of particular pottery vessel types in the graves that he was studying, then shuffling them manually to get the best fit — an amazing feat (Figure 2). Though subject to critical challenge, the technique is still in use where chronological frameworks are poorly understood and other forms of dating are not available.

Figure 2: The cardboard strips used by Flinders Petrie to group graves of similar date based on occurrence of specific pottery form types (with thanks to the Petrie Archive UCL, London)

Applied across a site, seriation can help date contexts that are not connected stratigraphically, to produce a phasing (Wikipedia contributors 2018g) of the development of a site. Other classes of artefact which change over time due to availability of technology or changing fashion, or deliberate replacement can also be included, for example brooches which change stylistically, or coins which may reflect changing political situations. When many sites are compared, the presence of key pottery vessel forms, along with other artefacts types, and perhaps the presence of particular features or practices evidenced in an excavation, is referred to as an assemblage or culture (Wikipedia contributors 2018h).

However, a challenge faced by archaeologists in creating and using these knowledge organization systems or type series is the variability of pottery artefacts. Typically, in the pre-industrial period pots were hand-built or thrown. This variability makes it more difficult to choose the diagnostic features of the form of a pot on which to base a classification. Which variables actually indicate the work of a different maker, or changing fashions or styles over time (which are of archaeological interest) and which are simply the inherent variability in throwing or hand-forming the pots by the same potter? As a result, there are many different schemes in use, covering both pottery vessel forms and a wide range of different artefact types.

The use of common knowledge organization systems to describe pottery vessel forms could help speed analysis, and increase the potential for comparison with other datasets from other excavations. Standardization of the classification schemes in use is possible, but difficult to achieve in practice. Studies of archaeological artefacts lack the globally applicable core unifying principle of, for example, Linnaean taxonomy in biology [8]. The consequence is that a researcher will often find it difficult to reuse and reinterpret the analysis of a collection of artefacts when these have been classified in a different way to that which best meets the needs of the researcher.

One possible future approach might be to apply the use of an overarching structured thesaurus to unify or concord the disparate classification schemes (Dan Miles, Historic England, pers. comm. 2018). Thesauri could allow for multiple labels, for example type attributions taken from different archaeological classification schemes, to be applied to the same concept.

An exciting new possible application could be to use computerised image recognition techniques to speed the process of identifying pottery types. One such project is the Archaid system currently under development, which aims to create a new system for the automatic recognition of archaeological pottery from excavations around the world (http://www.archaide.eu/).

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6. Archaeological theory and classification

Many different theories have been suggested and applied in archaeology. Among these are predictive theories like materialism and Darwinism, but also less predictive perspectives like semiotics, feminism and many others [9]. There exist many books about archaeological theories, including Bentley, Maschner and Chippindale (2007), Krieger (2006), Trigger (2006) and Urban and _ (2019).

Research paradigms and theories influence the way researchers look at the world, the questions asked, the methods used, the interpretation of data etc. We must therefore also expect that different paradigms and theories have important implications for classification of data in archaeology. However, little has so far been written about this and Murray (2001, xix-xx) points out that, despite archaeology’s great diversity, the common questions and fundamental activities, such as classification, that lie at the core of archaeology enable archaeologists to communicate with each other and exchange knowledge. Trigger pointed out an important connection:

Yet, of both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, the development of a culture-historical approach to archaeology carried classification, chronology and cultural reconstruction far beyond the point they had reached previously. The switch from ‘scientific’ to ‘historical’ objectives stimulated rather than inhibited the development of archaeological methodology. (Trigger 2006, 303)
[A]lthough the recovery and classification of archaeological data are also influenced by the interests of different groups of archaeologists, over time there has been a growing understanding of the extent and significance of the formal variation that occurs in the archaeological record. (Trigger 2006, 540)

Rouse (1960) presents and discusses kinds of classification in archaeology and call attention to the way in which archaeological analysis and taxonomy complement each other. This discussion is not, however, related to overall theoretical approaches in archaeology, and Adams and Adams (1991, 296) pointed out that archaeologists’ typology debate at that time was somewhat beclouded by the lack of an adequate conceptual vocabulary, a problem that they find is common to all sciences in their formative stages. Adams and Adams (1991) is an important investigation of classification in archaeology which is written by an archaeologist and a philosopher of science. That book relates classification to archaeological theory. Its main claim is that different classifications and typologies in archaeology should be understood as “microparadigms” and that typological changes are “microrevolutions”.

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7. Conclusion — information to knowledge

The analysis of pottery vessel forms by archaeologists illustrates the way in which data derived from real-world observation, classified to yield well-structured information, can contribute to the pursuit of knowledge – in this case as deeper understanding of the past. As a simple model for describing and conveying the process the three-tiered knowledge pyramid is considered relevant and useful.

The fundamentally incomplete nature of the data at the base of the pyramid and the complexities of creating information structures that can be synthesised are continuing problems. These indicate the over-simplification inherent in the pyramid model. Nevertheless, the effort to derive new knowledge from analysed information and observed data is worthwhile as, for most of human existence, there is no history: archaeology is the principle source for understanding ‘prehistory’.

An example is the discussion in 2017-18 of the ‘Beaker culture’ in the European Bronze Age (Wikipedia contributors 2018i). The culture is named for the presence of large bell-shaped pottery beakers, often in association with bronze implements and tools (Figure 3). These are found in many parts of Western Europe on site dating to around 2,900 to 1,800 BC. The knowledge that an archaeologist seeks is an understanding of the meaning of the comparatively rapid and widespread appearance of this culture. Does it imply a large-scale movement of people using these beakers, bringing them with them to new lands? Or the presence of widespread trade or other forms of social contact between many different peoples, each adopting this new style of pottery? What does this tell us about how society changed over time in this period? Into this discussion have come recent studies of the human DNA from Beaker period burials. These have been interpreted to imply a large scale replacement of the population of Britain at the time that these beakers appear in the archaeological record, taken to support the mass migration theory.

Figure 3: Examples of bell beakers, dating to the Bronze Age (CC BY NC 2 Wessex Archaeology)

At the apex of some versions of the knowledge pyramid is wisdom. In the context of archaeology wisdom looks in two directions. First is the constant need to question the evidence. How has this high-level knowledge been derived? Is the level of inference from incomplete data and information justifiable and appropriate? Second is the need for awareness of the society in which archaeology operates, and how that can influence interpretation, and conversely, be used beyond academic discussion in wider society. In the case of the Beaker culture, interpretations of the prehistoric expansion of the Beaker culture have been used in the past as support for theories of racial superiority, colonialism and military expansion. More recently, the influx of refugees from the Middle East into Europe has reawakened widespread interest in the interpretation of the limited DNA evidence from Beaker period burials along these lines (see for example Rincon (2018) for a popular presentation of the evidence, or Furholt (2018) for a recent review of the academic discussion). The wise archaeologist is constantly aware of, and pointing out the need for, reflection on the quality of the data and information on which controversial knowledge is based.

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This article draws on thoughts first developed for a presentation to the ISKO UK conference “Knowledge Organization — What’s the Story” in 2017. The author is deeply grateful both to ISKO and to the editor, Birger Hjørland for the help and encouragement in preparing this article. The author also thanks two anonymous peer-reviewers for valuable feedback.

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1. The Danish historian Anne Katrine Gjerløff (1999) wrote (in Danish) that before 1830 history and archaeology were considered one discipline, but between 1830-1890 an understanding developed which separated them as disciplines. This self-understanding relates to a certain view of what historical sources and archaeological sources are, and how they are interpreted. Gjerløff argues that this understanding is problematic, and that the two fields therefore need to be better integrated and have a broader understanding of the concept of their sources.

2. Among the many works about archaeological methods are Carver (2009) and Maschner and Chippindale (2005). The last work has the following table of contents:
“-- Introduction
-- Short history of archaeological methods, 1870 to 1960
-- Logistics of fieldwork and collecting field data
-- Archaeological survey
-- Excavation
-- Sequence and stratigraphy
-- Ethnoarchaeology
-- Maritime archaeology
-- Radiocarbon dating
-- Other dating techniques
-- Geographic information systems
-- Terrestrial remote sensing in archaeology
-- Archaeological chemistry
-- Statistics for archaeology
-- Systems and simulacra: modelling, simulation, and archaeological interpretation
-- Experimental archaeology
-- Reflexive methods
-- Pottery
-- Lithic studies
-- Paleoethnobotanical methods and applications
-- Zooarchaeology
-- Bioarchaeological methods
-- Rock art analysis
-- Demography
-- Geoarchaeology
-- Craft production
-- Historical archaeology
-- Trade and exchange
-- Regional analysis in archaeology
-- Managing archaeological resources
-- Curation of data
-- Funding archaeological research
-- Colleagues, talking, writing, publishing
-- Working with and working for indigenous communities
-- Index”.

3. About taphonomy see, for example Behrensmeye (1984), Fernandez-Jalvo and Andrews (2016), Ioannidou (2003), Knusel and Robb (2016) and Wikipedia contributors (2018a).

4. One or more entries about color classification are planned for this encyclopedia. About the use of the Munsell classification, see, among other references, Gerharz, Latermann and Spennemann (1988), Ferguson (2014), Goodwin (2000), Knoop (2013) and Milotta et al. (2018). The basic lesson seems to be that color identification and classification is not just a mechanical procedure, but that the choice of classification is dependent on the research questions asked and may be associated with different epistemological positions.

5. About stratigraphy see, for example, Harris (1989), Rowe (1961) and Wikipedia contributors (2018b).

6. About post-excavation analysis, see Wikipedia contributors (2018e). Excavation reports will typically be published either as monographs, or in one of the numerous peer-reviewed academic journals specialising in particular areas or periods, many published by learned societies. Digital publication of reports and associated data, is increasingly used, both to make fuller records of excavations available economically in a format that other researchers can subsequently re-use, and to provide new ways of presenting the work, for example through the use of blogs and social media. This topic is of special interest to information science. Oikarinen and Kortelainen (2013) is an article from the field of knowledge organization that consider documents produced in archaeological post-excavation analysis and re-raise a question of archaeological cataloguing, which is a specific case in the context of global progress of digitalization in archaeology.

7. About seriation see also, for example, Carver (1985), Dunnell (1970) and Wikipedia contributors (2018f).

8. Although the Linnaean taxonomy is criticized (e.g., Ereshefsky 2000) and a competing system, the PhyloCode, has been developed, the Linnaean taxonomy remains, together with the Periodical System of Chemistry and Physics the best example of a successful scientific classification. However, no system, even the Periodical System, is without problems including issues of a philosophical nature.

9. Bentley, Maschner and Chippindale (2007) has the following contents:

“1. Introduction: On Archaeological Theories
Part I. Research Paradigms
2. Culture history: A Culture-Historical Approach
3. Processualism and After
4. Ecology in Archaeology
5. Classical Art and the Grand Tour
6. Marxism
7. Agency
8. Darwinian Archaeologies
9. Post-Processual Archaeology and After
Part II. Ideas from Neighboring Disciplines
10. History and Continental Approaches
11. Latin American Archaeology and History and Practice
12. Cultural Anthropology and Archaeology: Theoretical Dialogues
13. Evolutionary Biological Methods and Cultural Data
14. Archaeology and the Origin of Language Families
15. Complexity Theory
Part III. Research Concerns
16. Simulating Society
17. Mind
18. Materiality
19. Ethnicity: Theoretical Approaches, Methodological Implications
20. Gender
21. Philosophy in Archaeology
Part IV. Contexts of Archaeological Study
22. Cultural Resource Management
23. Archaeology and Society
24. Archaeological Ethics in Context and Practice
25. Toward a Postcolonial Archaeology of Indigenous Australia
Part V. Theory and Practice
26. Hunters and Gatherers
27. The Origins and Spread of Agriculture
28. The Archaeology of Rank
29. Chiefdoms
30. The Rise of the State
31. Religion
Index of Names
About the Contributors

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