Thursday, March 28, 2013

Archaeological Context: Hard Evidence Attorneys Should Value


Attorneys value hard evidence. They collect, classify, and present evidence to persuade jurors and judges about the merits of their cases. They are intimately familiar with the Rules of Evidence, which require a "chain of custody" and "laying a foundation" before any item may be offered to the finder of fact as an authenticated piece of proof. Archaeologists also value evidence. They likewise preserve the chain of custody of objects--called provenience and provenance--and they employ the scientific method to preserve, authenticate, and reconstruct evidence of the past.

Given the high regard lawyers and archaeologists have for rigorous standards of proof, it would be natural for these professionals to possess a shared affinity. That is why a lawyer's remarks this week questioning archaeologists' "single-minded obsession with archaeological context" deserves comment.  See Chasing Aphrodite, March 25, 2013.

The context of an archaeological artifact refers to the object's find spot, its time sequence within the layers or strata of dirt, and its association with nearby artifacts. Context means that the artifact is an integral part of its place of discovery. It also means that the place of discovery is an integral part of the artifact. Both the artifact and the archaeological site lose information when an artifact is ripped out of the soil without proper scientific excavation or documentation. Reconstructing the past is made difficult when contextual evidence is damaged or tampered with.

Litigators know this all too well. It is the reason why prosecuting attorneys, for example, single-mindedly focus on preserving evidence at crime scenes. Crimes like murder and arson have little chance of being reconstructed unless evidence is properly documented, collected, tagged, examined, and tracked. A judge will quickly toss out evidence deemed too be unreliable in cases where the find spot has not been documented or where questions surround the chain of custody.

The value of archaeological context in relation to ancient coins cannot be dismissed by the explanation that "[n]umismatists derive their own context." Derived context increases the risk of producing faulty conclusions, perhaps even based on inauthentic evidence. It is true that "by studying the inscriptions and iconography found on coins, by reconstructing the chronology of dies used to strike a given series, and by analyzing the weight standard and the metallurgical content of each issue" that something may be learned about the past. There is no doubt that a direct examination of numismatic archaeological material can be a valuable tool. But such inspections produce more precise results when the cultural property observer knows where the coins were found and in what specific archaeological context. Archaeology, of course, is the fundamental scientific field that gathers this contextual evidence.

The Archaeological Institute of America shares a good example of why context matters in its August 7, 2007 web post titled "Coins and Archaeology":

"At the sanctuary of Zeus at Nemea (Greece), for example, the coin scatter indicates which areas of the sanctuary were used at different times, and from which regions the travelers came, thereby facilitating a reconstruction of patterns of pilgrimage at the site. In addition, the distribution of coins confirms heavy use of the sanctuary in the fifth century B.C., a lower level of use in the early fourth century, and intense building during the later fourth and early third centuries. In the site's stadium, coins indicate that citizens were seated by towns, not randomly around the track, and that a predominantly local audience watched the games. Furthermore, coins of Ptolemy III, ruler of Egypt from 246 to 222 B.C., are found in great numbers at the site, which constitute direct evidence that the king financed warfare in the Peloponnese (southern Greece) as he did in Attica."

Archaeological context helps reconstruct the past accurately. That is why it is the kind of hard evidence that lawyers should appreciate.

This post is researched, written, and published on the blog Cultural Heritage Lawyer Rick St. Hilaire at culturalheritagelawyer.blogspot.com. Text copyrighted 2013 by Ricardo A. St. Hilaire, Attorney & Counselor at Law, PLLC. Any unauthorized reproduction or retransmission of this post is prohibited. CONTACT: www.culturalheritagelawyer.com