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Is single context recording the only way?
Is single context recording the only way? The past 30 years has seen a concensus reached in UK archaeology that there is only really one way to record archaeology. It is the single context method - devised originally by Wheeler in his post-war excavations, developed in urban and rescue archaeology during the 60s in places such as Winchester, theorised by Harris in the early 70s and formalized, particularly by the Department of Urban Archaeology of the Museum of London in the 80s and 90s. Nearly all curators of archaeology now require that the single context methodology is adopted on excavations under their curation.

But have we gone too far down that route and thrown out earlier practices of excavation that are as effective, in their implementation and results, as the single context method. Further I wonder if the single context system shouldn’t be reconsidered in the light of technological advances since the 1980s. Are some of the other methods of excavation, particularly those adopted in other countries, equally useful in recording the archaeological resource. Or is the concept of single context recording so good that it don’t need changing. Discuss…

(Students of the ‘School of Jack’ can gain study credits as a result of taking part in this discussion….)
With peace and consolation hath dismist, And calm of mind all passion spent...
Serious question - where can us younger (my which I mean in archaeological experience not necessarily in years!) find out about these alternative systems? I for one would be most interested. Ta.
Good question Tool...and I don't have an obvious answer. There is plenty written about the single context system but I cant find anything about alternatives. I guess if you were to find some old archaeology text books maybe something in that....for example this little quote from Barker 'Techniques etc'
With peace and consolation hath dismist, And calm of mind all passion spent...
Now there's a coincidence! Someone recommended that very same book to me the other day. I wrote it down in my little blue book and promptly forgot all about it! Thanks Kevin - I'll stick it on my When I Have Some Spare Cash list (along with way too many others... Wink)
Wow Kevin, what an interesting can of worms! For a start, this could be split into two almost independent issues - single context "concept" and "practice". And frankly most of the heated discussion I've heard centres more on practice than concept.

As a concept, giving each feature a unique ID allows us to relate them to other features temporally and spatially, as well as relating them by activity in order to build up the story of the site. This is the essence of grouping and phasing that allows us to set out a chronology that can be tied to dating evidence and can be independently checked by others. Even when we dig in "spits", or arbitrary layers, we ultimately want to know how features relate to one another. There are of course limitations that may force us to dig in spits or box-sections etc. But it is hard to see how choosing to dig in spits can offer as much relationship info as digging one context at a time - therefore to my mind it is always a second-class option, to be taken when "plan A" isn't possible. Of course, one of the drivers for recording philosophy can be cash - single-context digging/recording is labour-intensive and requires a wide range of skills among the digging staff.

Practice is where things get ugly within the single-context world. Many folk have a hard time seeing the difference between single-context "understanding" and paper record-creation. Some systems use the context number as the plan and photo numbers, effectively forcing diggers to draw only one feature per sheet regardless of how silly it looks or how much permatrace it wastes. (Been forced to record a floor-full of obviously related stake holes one per sheet in the past - dumb idea, but their choice...) This may make it easier to create a matrix by stacking plans without the need for a drawings index, but it seems overkill to me. And while it is ideal to dig features in strict chronological reverse-order, it is rarely practical. The issue is easily alleviated by using separate IDs for all records, and then listing which contexts appear in them, but this does come with a burden in terms of extra effort. And there will be times when the sequence breaks down, through truncation or "missed" observations, but a flexible brain can sort these out.

New technologies such as databases, GIS, etc rely on strict adherence to rules, which favours single-context systems. Yes, it can be a pain to have to identify the whole outline of a feature, and it may not even be possible under certain conditions, but a good system will have tools for dealing with these circumstances as they arise. ("edge uncertain" or "truncation" lines spring to mind in paper drawings...) I have no problem with multiple contexts occupying the same permatrace as long as they don't obscure one another, but I still want them to be individually ID'd and put into the matrix if possible.

I see no reason why we need to keep up a pretence that there is an "either/or" ideological choice here - surely single-context is the ideal for obvious reasons of clear understanding, but spits or other techniques can be the best (or only) way to go on some sites.

Your mileage may vary...
There are plenty of equally valid ways of digging a site other than single context - I believe I'm right in saying that in some countries people still dig boxes, for instance? And the only time I bother allocating context numbers when e.g. borehole monitoring is if there are finds coming out (our finds system would implode without them) otherwise it's irrelevant and just wastes a lot of paper (I'd have to copy every entry off my Borehole Monitoring Sheet onto additional Context Sheets without being able to add any additional info - pointless!). The important unit in that example is the borehole deposit sequence, treated as a whole, and what it shows in comparison to other nearby deposit sequences. The old system of feature numbers with fills as sub-units of the feature (e.g. Pit 6 Layer F) worked fine too, at least on rural plough-truncated sites without the inconvenience of stratigraphy, and certainly seemed to be less of a problem for the 'number-challenged' both on site and in PX. Four and five digit context numbers present excessive opportunities for c**k-ups, as anyone who's written up a big project will be aware, on the current job we're stipulating that, after the site code, Field Nos come second in the designation hierarchy (its a 19km linear site, so handily divided into lots of fields)so that we've got some chance a year or two down the line to work out what context number was really meant (it's amazing what can slip past on-site checking)...nothing's allowed to leave site without the Field No written on it.

One problem with Single Context Recording is that it's rather specific and makes recording stuff like topography, drainage (i.e. how the archaeology fits into the wider landscape, and what happens over the hedge) and the like rather difficult, if you see what I mean? Not an obvious way around that, although I've always had the nagging feeling that SCR may not be the best way to do things. Bit like there's lots of observations I'd like to stick on various HERs, except there's no way their fill-the-boxes-in systems could record it

Barkingdigger's right, what most people use these days isn't the original 'pure' form of Single Context Recording anyway, but various formats adapted to each unit's local needs.

Think am rambling (hangover) so I'll get back to my grave gazetteer and analysis... [coincidentally another thing not helped by Single Context, am having to treat everything by Gazetteer No in order to make it comprehensible]
Ah, this is part of the "concept/practice" confusion! Your "Pit 6, Layer F" is just a rebadged SCR system, since you give each deposit or cut a unique identity, and then relate them stratigraphically as best you can. The myth of SCR concept is that it requires somehow giving everything a sequential number - you can call 'em "Fred, Barney, and Ethel" if it floats your boat. The problem is that somewhere along the line the simple logical concept of dividing excavated features up into individual artefacts of activity and giving them unique labels has been hijacked by those who insist on imposing a fixed process on their workers, creating the odd rigid systems we all know & loathe. (Only one cxt allowed per drawing sheet, and each sheet is a grid-defined 5m box, so a single pit can span FOUR sheets if it is in the corner? Please! That's a process-Nazi's nightmare come true...)

Digging in boxes isn't an issue, but you then need to decide how you dig, investigate, and record the features within the box. If the site is amorphous soil with no discernible edges or differences, and you intend to dig it in 1x1x1m cubes and dump the finds in a bag with no attempt at strat - fair enough. But if you dig a set of Wheelerian boxes on a site while still identifying all the cuts, fills, and layers encountered, you're just doing SCR in "sub-trench" arbitrary divisions. (And if you are hitting identifiable features but NOT recording them separately in a way that lets you relate each preserved episode of activity, one has to ask "WHY?"...)

The issue is that SCR is a detailed description of activity on a site that sees (for instance) a "building" as a high-level grouping made up of mid-level groupings called "walls", each made up of single contexts for posts, post hole cuts, packing, fills, etc. The decision is "what level of detail do I need to fulfil my project requirements?". If you are only describing the whole village, then you don't need SCR, but if you are demolishing the building then you do. Either way, the concept of the building being divisible by SCR units remains valid. It's kinda like studying physics - you can go "high level" and look at planets, or you can focus in to look at molecules, atoms, sub-atomic particles, or even quarks - each level of zooming-in has its own separate descriptive "language" even though the underlying thing can be studied at multiple levels. (And the ultimate prize in physics is a Unifying Theory that lets them use the same tools to look at the microscopic and macroscopic without needing different rules.)

So, you can still record your drain as "Drain 123" without doing any SCR on it, but essentially that's just saying "I know Drain 123 is a Group that probably contains a bunch of contexts, but I don't need to go into that much detail for this report". As long as the drain isn't destroyed (so others can record it in more detail later) that's perfectly ok. And if you treat "Drain 123" as a Group, you can still integrate it with the records of the adjacent SCR-excavated trenches...
Am I missing something here...

Single context Recording as in each separate and distinct cut, fill, deposit or structural element is assigned a unique number. ( Numbers are free after all, and it is easier to merge than it is to split up later)

Even when digging in spits, you need to have a way to distinguish this from that.

No matter how you look at it. that brown stuff in the pit over there has to be uniquely identified from that brown stuff in the other pit over there ( the other there) so inherently all systems are reliant on human error and subsequent ( hopefully onsite) checking

Dinos (e.g. Pit 6 Layer F ) is no different from [1023] in terms of designation. I once worked for a person who designated each context by 100m square (Letter ) 10m square (Number) 5m Square (Letter A-D ) and then a final number for the context within the square. so G13D234 I suggested that they just have one number for everything. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 etc the rest of the code is made from the site, year and trench (if applicable)

Point being that no matter what "system" you are using you have to have a way to identify the layer, pit or wall a single unique way... I don't understand how else you could do it. ... method and application are different

on the other hand single context planning is totally designed for specifically complex and deeply stratified sites. and is unsuitable for anything else.
I am totally in agreement with David and Barking regarding the necessity for logical recording on site... My dis-ease with the SCR system isn't with the principle that we assign numbers/letters/coding to the lowest unit of stratification, as long as we agree that on some sites that might be a single pebble and on another site (or even the same site if dictated by the research strategy) it might be a wall or a ditch or even a lake. My problem is that the system has become rigidly stuck in its paper-based analogue history and hasn't kept up with the rate of technology. Some examples....

Planning. The simplest way of comparing structures was to drawn them onto transparent film and then overrlay the plans. There was a sensibility to minimising the data on any single plan sheet to a defined area (5m square or whatever) and to a single structure or singularity of structures (post holes all sealed by the same layer for example). This form of planning also required a fixed grid system to be imposed on the site (pegs, nails, strings and tapes). I think however with the ease of modern survey equipment and the ability to scan and digitize plan drawings, the use of rectified plan photography, that this system does not need to be as rigid as it once was....but few archaeological organizations or exponents of SCR seem to have taken up this challenge. Most people are still using the same system that was devised circa 1974 with all of the inefficiences, costs and time spent just setting up, rather than devoting that time to the recording itself let alone the time lost in post-ex unscrambling this data back into a version of the site.

Matrixes. The purpose of the site matrix as originally devised was to provide a summary of site relations, a template upon which to suggest stratigraphic, temporal and spatial relationships. It was closely tied to the consequential land-use diagram which in itself (particularly in urban archaeology) was a tool towards the synthesis of microdata into settlement and/or spatial analysis. Nowadays however the creation of the matrix is seen by many as the goal of the excavation. Lots of time is spent creating matrixes on site and in post-ex. But what is the purpose of a martrix? It’s a shorthand to considering relationships. Tramlines can be traced and there is a vague relationship to stratification in the order that the data is presented on the page. Likewise a temporal aspect can be reflected in the stratification (latest at the top, earliest at the bottom). But technology now allows us to interrogate/compare data through asking specific questions of related data bases (Boolean interrogation in its simplest form). It is very easy to ask questions of data i.e is that fill/structure/phase earlier or later, stratigraphically over or under, where are the nodes of connection between this and that plan, show me all structures of a single ‘phase’ or date-range etc etc. There is no need anymore to create new versions of the London Tube map for each and every archaeological intervention. More importantly asking questions of the data suggests we have taken it to a form of analysis or synthesis that is above and beyond just leaving a record of the site in a dusty archive

Disssemination Somewhere along the line we have lost the imperative of archaeological research, which has to be to disseminate a 'result'. We have fallen into a trap, again prompted perhaps by the 'accuracy' and perceived detail of SCR into believing that data alone is a sufficient archaeological record and that at some future date 'someone' (anyone!) will come along to analyse and/or synthesise that data. That of course is just putting off admitting that we are really not up to the job. My argument is that if we are unable to produce a 'finished' report for resource reasons and the resource that we spend the most on is the recording system itself, rather than analyzing the data towards dissemination, then we need to redress the balance, making SCR more efficient and less resource needy.

I love the methodology of SCR. I worked for the Museum of London for many years during the time that system was being created and honed. I love the idea that it is basically an ‘analogue’ GIS…so very advanced for its time. I just wonder why we have stopped developing it to the next level.
With peace and consolation hath dismist, And calm of mind all passion spent...
So we're not talking the Single Context Recording so beloved by MoLAS as a way of wasting permatrace and generating excessive numbers of bits of paper? [other drafting films are available]

And Barkingdigger, thing the SCR was in fact the 'rebadging' !

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