The Grammar of the Archaeological Record
1. The System

5. Constituent Properties

Giorgio Buccellati – June 2010
Marco De Pietri – November 2022

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5.1: Labels, Properties and Codes

We have already described briefly (2.5) the distinction between these three concepts. Labels serve as identifiers of constituents, while properties are the analytical traits which, together, define the same constituents; they subsume variables and variants. Codes are alphanumeric strings which refer to specific labels or properties. Codes for labels have already been discussed above (4). In this section, we will see in detail the codes for properties, i.e., for variables and for variants.

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5.2: Rosters: codes for variables

I use the term “roster” to refer to the structured list of codes used for variables. The main roster includes all the codes which are needed for stratigraphic analysis and for a minimal typological analysis. Special rosters provide additional information for distinct typologies (and occasionally for special types of stratigraphic analysis, such as microstratigraphy).

All rosters are identified by a prefix which consists of three characters the first is the capital letter Z which signals a roster code. The next two consist of any alphanumeric combination that identifies the roster in question: thus the code “Zmr” refers to the main roster, and the code “Zai” means that the secondary roster for Aglyptic Impressions on Sealings is being used.

Successive versions are possible for any given roster. The version is identified by a three character numeric code separated by a hyphen from the roster code. This version indicator must be placed at the beginning of each file. For example, “Zmr-022” identifies the current (22nd) version of the Main Roster, “Zsi-001” identifies the current (first) version of the Seal Impression roster.

The Main Roster is assumed by default. In other words, if no roster code is used, then the code for any given roster slot belongs to the Main Roster.

The structure of the roster is uniform in all cases. It consists of subgroups of variables, sorted according to their logical sequence. Within each subgroup, there are two parallel sets of codes, structural and mnemonic, and an explanation of the value of that particular property.

The structural code consists of a two or three character alphanumeric sequence. The first character is an UPPER CASE letter, which corresponds to the category within which the code belongs (e.g., volumetric localization). The second character is a digit or a lower case letter, which corresponds to the sequential number within the list of variables for that particular subgroup.

The mnemonic code is an optional variant of the structural code. It consists of two lower case letters, which echo the key word defining the variables: for example, “ht” or “lg”, for “height” and “length” respectively, are found within the subgroup of variables called “Measurements” of the Main Roster. The sequential code for this same subgroup “Measurements” is J; since height and length are the first two variables in the subgroup, the structural codes are J1 and J2, respectively.

Structural and mnemonic codes are wholly identical in their function. In the input, only one must be entered at a time, thus either “J1” or “ht”, either “J2” or “lg”, etc.

A list of all the used mnemonic codes can be found in chapter 6.6.

Special rosters (see below, 8) are identical in structure to the Main Roster. They can be developed as need arises, and internal codes are wholly independent among all rosters (Main and Special): thus “sp” means “specific label” within the Main Roster, but it means “spin” within the “Secondary Roster Zai” (Aglyptic Impressions on Sealings).

A roster will also indicate whether the particular set of variants expected in any given slot needs to use a lexicon or a standard, or else whether the variant can be in free format. For instance, in the Main Roster, the variable B10 = df (“definition”) uses a lexicon, the variable B11 = ds (“description”) is in free format, and the variable B20 = qc requires a numeric standard.

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5.3: Lexica: codes for variants

A lexicon lists the codes for variants used to match given variables, i.e., to fill a pertinent roster slot.

A few of these lexica are in standard use, e.g., the “Munsell Color Chart” is in fact a lexicon, from which values are taken to fill the slot for color K5 = co (“color”). Such lexica are obviously presupposed by the Roster, and need not be given in this grammar.

The other lexica are given below (chapters 7 and 9). But it is important to discuss first the range of applicability of the very concept of lexical definition. For it is a moot question whether precise lexical definitions ought to be given for every variant or not. In some cases, lexical definitions may be considered obvious, and no particular explanation may seem particularly necessary – a cylinder seal or a cuneiform tablet may possibly be so considered. But as soon as one probes a little deeper, alternatives emerge. For instance, one may define a color impressionistically as “reddish”, or technically as “reddish gray” (= Munsell value 10R 5/1): the latter is derived from a lexicon in the technical sense used here, while the former is derived from common use English.

One important consideration is to combine precision with efficiency. The choice is conditioned by specific field situations, which will recommend different strategies. Means are available, if strategy requires it, to match accuracy with precision; in other words, a precise lexicon may be used if the specific situation warrants spending the extra time that may needed to obtain it. Precision depends on the availability of the lexicon, accuracy on the decision to use this lexicon.

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5.4: Standards: criteria for variants

The reason for a possible conflict between precision and accuracy rests in the fact that, in some cases, to obtain precision one must employ standards, and this requires an extra amount of time. For instance, the standard for measurements are centimeters: to state that a distance is “great” may be considered equivalent to saying that its length is “325 cms.” Two distinct lexica are used, but a standard is needed for the second – the difference being, of course, that more time is required to measure the distance with a tape (the standard) and obtain thereby the more precise lexical definition.

A standard, then, is a tool that allows us to apply certain parameters in order to obtain a more precise lexical definition. Thus a Munsell Color Chart is both a lexicon (in that it provides a reasoned sequence of discrete definitions) and a standard (in that it contains means of matching the definition against a measurable example).

It may be assumed as normal that in most situations one will use a tape and give a precise measure in centimeters, hence it is less frequent that measurements be given with adjectives rather than digits. On the other hand, it may not be expected in quite the same way that one should use a Munsell Color Chart each time one refers to a color: the adjective “reddish” for color (instead of the value “10R 5/1”) may be used more readily than the adjective “great” for distance (instead of “325 cms.”).

A centimeter tape is a readily available standard, a Munsell Color Chart slightly less so, if nothing else because of the moderate costs involved and the greater time expenditure required. Yet in other cases, standards are not readily available, even when cost is not a factor. What is often missing, in other words, is simply the methodological framework within which to identify standards. For example, one would normally say “hard” without using a penetrometer, or “clayish” without referring to explicit criteria of identification, or “oblique” without stating the degree of axial inclination.

Note that one needs to aim for maximal precision at all times. That is precisely what I meant by referring to the question of strategy. It should be a deliberate choice to opt for greater or lesser precision, and such a choice ought to be faced consciously in the first place, and then made explicit in the record. But a problem that is not, in my opinion, adequately addressed is that in many cases standards are missing even when one would, strategically, want to opt for the use of one.

Some such standards are introduced here, and are presented below (chapter 20). They envisage a variety of areas, with particular emphasis on stratigraphy. Others may of course be introduced at any time, and, through the definition of a proper matching lexicon, can be introduced within the overall system.

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