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Street-level archaeology

February 23, 2012

A spoon embedded in asphalt, shot by Mike Mission.

Artist Mike Mission has compiled a collection of photos that some might consider odd, but to those of us whose stock in trade is interpreting material culture, it’s captivating.

Mission photographs ordinary objects that have been embedded in the asphalt in New York City. The photo to the left is typical, and you can see the rest of the gallery on his Flickr page. He refers to this project as “Asphalt Archaeology,” a very apt term, because these images raise a terrific opportunity to talk a little about two key concepts of archaeology, regardless of the time period. The concepts are context and association, and you can read on below the cut for more.

Context simply refers to the location where an object was discovered. In terms of the spoon, the context is, well, lodged in asphalt on an unknown NYC street. In archaeological terms, an artifact’s context might be “inside a cellar,” “in a sheet midden,” or in a certain “level” of a test unit. Association is tightly related to context, as it refers to “the things found around a certain object.” Two artifacts that were found together inside that cellar, in that sheet midden, or in the same level of the test unit, are said to be “in association.”

Two objects in association.

Context and association are important to archaeologists because they allow us to draw relationships between certain artifacts, or, conversely, to argue that there is no direct relationship between them. And they help us explain how and (perhaps) why objects ended up where we find them.

That’s well and good, but what does it mean, and how is it useful? In terms of the spoon, we can use those concepts to draw a picture of how it ended up where it did. It might go something like this:

Because it is pressed into the surface level of an asphalt street, this spoon was apparently discarded soon after the asphalt was laid down, while it was still soft enough to capture an object like the spoon. A street is an unusual context for a spoon to be discovered. People tend to eat indoors, particularly in urban settings. We know that spoons are usually used to eat liquid-based or somewhat gelatinous foods, like soups, stews, ice cream, etc. But street vendors often sell those types of foods, so it’s reasonable to imagine that the spoon could have been discarded by someone who was eating something purchased from a street vendor. But typically, vendors supply wooden or plastic spoons, as they cost less than metal ones. So that explanation seems less likely. More likely is the spoon was discarded elsewhere, perhaps swept from an alley or out a home’s door or tossed into the street as a means of disposal, and ended up in the street unintentionally, and separate from the place it was intended to be used. It was then pressed into the soft asphalt, which hardened and held it tight.

So that’s an explanation for the context. What does association tell us?

A drill bit in asphalt matrix.

The spoon (and they keys and metal thing in the photo above) are in association with the asphalt matrix. Because asphalt is sticky and pliable until it dries, we know that the objects had to have been laid in their position fairly shortly after the asphalt itself was spread. At the very least, we know that the asphalt was laid before the objects in them, otherwise it would have covered them over and they wouldn’t be there for Mr. Mission’s photos. That’s a strong association.

So what does that tell us? For starters, we could get an idea of when these depositional events occurred. It would likely be possible to determine when the street was last asphalted, perhaps by a call to the public works department in New York, or just by asking a bunch of people who live or work nearby. Then things get interesting.

We could look at the objects themselves for clues to how old they are. A coin, for instance (which Mission doesn’t seem to have any photos of, unfortunately), with a date stamp, is what we call a well-dated artifact. A 1910 penny was created in, obviously, 1910. If we found one stuck in asphalt that was laid in 2010, we would have a little chronological problem to resolve. Two objects in the same context with strong association, but vastly separate in the time of their manufacture. Or, how did a penny get stuck in asphalt a century after it entered circulation? We could think of all sorts of explanations – it might have been carried by a person as a lucky charm and lost, for instance. In a very real way, this is what archaeology’s all about: looking carefully at where things are found and what’s found around them, taking what we know about those things and how people behave with them, and trying to explain people’s actions.

So “Asphalt Archaeology” is quite appropriate. And I’d say there’s great artistic value here, as well as a valuable introduction to archaeological reasoning.

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