The Archaeological Potential of Secondary Contexts

Robert Hosfield, Jenni Chambers, Phil Toms, 2007

Data copyright © Dr Robert Hosfield, Jenni Chambers, Dr Phil Toms unless otherwise stated


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Dr Robert Hosfield
Department of Archaeology, School of Human and Environmental Science
University of Reading
Whiteknights
PO Box 227
Reading
RG6 6AB

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Introduction

The project assesses the Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages recovered from the flood deposits of Middle and Late Pleistocene (787-11,000 BP) rivers in the UK (described as archaeological secondary contexts). The stone tool assemblages are distributed across southern Britain, while Pleistocene flood (fluvial) deposits are distributed throughout the UK. The stone tool assemblages and their associated fluvial deposits vary in age from at least 700,000 years old to the end of the Paleolithic period (c. 11,000 years BP). The importance of archaeological secondary contexts therefore stems from their widespread geographical distribution and extensive chronological coverage.

This project assesses the value of the archaeological secondary context resource in terms of the unique spatio-temporal structure of the data, assemblage taphonomy, appropriate analytical frameworks and the potential of the resource for current and future understanding of the Palaeolithic period. The project report discusses a series of key themes and case studies. Key results are summarised below:

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  • Fluvial activity phases were episodic and short-lived. Understanding the chronology of the formation of Pleistocene fluvial sediments is critical as they are the context for the Palaeolithic stone tool assemblages.
  • Valuable behavioural data can be extracted from secondary context assemblages.
  • Artefact behaviour in fluvial environments is highly complex and can be explored through individual artefact-based models of spatial derivation.
  • Contrasting data scales do not permit high resolution palaeoenvironmental evidence and derived artefact data to be directly equated. Reconstructed paleoenvironments are therefore examples of some of the types of habitats that existed, but they cannot be explicitly populated with pre-modern human artefacts.
  • New interpretive frameworks must originate from the evaluated spatio-temporal stucture of the resource.
  • A wider range of data could be recovered from secondary contexts than currently results from standard watching brief practices. Future recommendations are suggested.

The project demonstrates that archaeological secondary contexts are a critical archaeological resource. It presents new methodologies for modelling the unique spatio-temporal scales associated with the resource, and for interpreting the data contained within archaeological secondary contexts.