The Grammar of the Archaeological Record



Giorgio Buccellati – June 2010, July 2024

When preparing for publication A Critique of Archaeological Reason it felt like walking along a double trajectory, that of theory and that of practice. In the preface (p. xiii) I wrote: “there was my long-standing confrontation with fieldwork and my ongoing reflection about it. It is the most concrete of situations, in which the urgency of practical matters and the scope of culturalresults is often so daunting as to rob us of the mental space we need to reflect on theory. And yet reflect we must. […] It was also an ongoing process. The act of excavation had its own rhythm: one could not stop and get off. Thus the theoretical reflection had to proceed apace. What ensued was an intense cross-fertilization between practice and theory.” And I spoke (p. xiv) of “the conviction that abstraction, properly conceived, was on the side of concreteness.”

This cross-fertilization and this welding of abstraction and concreteness find their realization in this Grammar, which is like a counterpart of the theoretical essay given in the Critique. In turn, the Grammar is the entry way to the Urkesh Global Record: together, they show how to achieve the theoretical goals stated in the Critique.


The concept of a grammar entails more than a set of rules. It proposes a coherent and tightly knit organism, capable of accounting for the most minute of details while a the same time viewing the whole in its structural complexity. The linguistic model operates with a living organism, even with the so-called “dead” languages: Babylonian has not been spoken for more than two millennia, but it is a living organism to the extent that we can retrieve it from the available texts.

The archaeological record, unlike a language, is not so organic. It is vast congeries of disaggregated data. But for few exceptions, the constituents as found are not the constituents as operative. Hence their grammar must go through two intermediate steps, one that defines the “things” as found, the other that defines them in terms of their orignal function and thus re-aggregates them into wholeness. It is, we might say, a grammar at the power of two.


The quality of a grammar is judged in part by its “power,” i. e., the effectiveness with which it can account for the data on the one hand and generate an output on the other. In the case of a linguistic grammar, this refers to a mutually understandable oral communication. In our context, this refers to how the totality of the data as found can be accounted for, in the first place, and then to how the data can be recomposed into unity. There are, therefore, two concomitant aspects.

The actual process whereby the output presented here is generated from the data is omitted here. It represents an altogether different exercise from the utilization of the record, requiring as it does the application of specific input protocols and the running of a set of programs. The development of these protocols and the writing of the programs has occupied much of my effort, alongside the development of the theoretical framework embodied in the Grammar and the field work embodied in the current volume with the publication of a subset of the data.

Protocols and programs are described in detail in a separate volume, entitled Operations Manual for the Urkesh Global Record (see the right-hand side ), which is however available only for in house use within the Mozan/Urkesh Archaeological Project.

While actual use of protocols and programs obviously requires a certain amount of training, two main points may be stressed here:

  1. The protocols are quite intuitive, and the programs have been written in function of their use. As a result, the actual recording process, and the coterminous process of data entry, are typically learned very quickly and have typically become second nature for the staff.
  2. The programs operate with great speed on any normal computer, so that the buildup of the entire record for any given excavation "book" takes place in constant concomitance with the data entry itself. Typically, it takes a few seconds to process the few files that are produced on any given day, and less than 5 minutes to process an entire "book" such as this one, which would typically include up to some 40,000 input entries and some 3,000 output files.

  3. The *Grammar of the Archaeological Record* provides the full framework within which the Urkesh Global Record (UGR) is to be understood. It is an autonomous digital book consisting of two distinct sections:

    1. The System: the full categorization that is applied to the data throughout the UGR.
    2. The Manual: operational procedures for data entry and for running the programs into the UGR.

    The underlying theory is discussed in a separate volume that is fully discursive, and is published as a paper edition, with a companion website: A Critique of Archaeological Reason.
    Volume 1 is fully integrated within the UGR through an exhaustive series of hyperlinks that provide the scaffolding for the concepts and definitions used in the system. Volume 2, on the other hand, is the operational tool for producing the UGR. As such, it will not be used by those who study the website, but only by those who are engaged in its production.
    A list of shortcuts provides quick access to some of the portions of the GRAMMAR that are more frequently in demand. These shortcuts include topics that are tangentially relevant to the GRAMMAR proper, such as the codes for the field seasons.

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