The Grammar of the Archaeological Record

1. The System

B. Categorization: principles

Giorgio Buccellati – August 2023

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The basic concepts

The categorization system is the formal means for ensuring coherence in the data. As such, it serves both

  1. a practical purpose, in that it serves as the uniform guideline for data entry,
  2. and a theoretical purpose, in that it provides a structural definition of the constituents, aiming to define the substance of each constituent.

The categorization system rests on the roster and the lexicon as the major elements of the system. They are defined in what follows, with regard to (1) the practical and (2) the theoretical aspects.

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(1) The roster is an organic series of slots that are to be filled with predefined content. They thus serve as variables, meaning that they can vary according as indicated in the lexicon. Thus a slot that requires a definition may be filled with a code that defines a constituent, e.g., the shape of a ceramic vessel as a jar.

(2) Theoretically, the roster is a paradigm in the form of a structured set of categories. These are organically related to each other, so as to give the full range of possible characteristics of the constituent in question. Thus the categories for a ceramic vessel would include, besides shape, also ware, decoration, color, measurements, function and time assignment: together, they “categorize,” fully, the constituent in question.

Categories may be either parallel or nested. For an example of the latter see the shapes in the Ceramic special roster.

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(1) The lexicon is a set of variants that can be applied to a given variable understood as a slot of the roster. Thus in the slot for definition, a ceramic vessel may in turn be defined as a jar, a bowl, a cup, etc.

(2) Theoretically, the lexical entries are seen as attributes. They are analytical components that are match specific criteria, down to the most minute detail. Thus the lexical code jn.h109 defines a “short necked jars: neck slightly flared outward, restricted slightly at base of neck, neck and rim much smaller diameter than widest part of body.”

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Closed and open systems

The roster is a closed system. This means that, being an organic whole, any addition to it must take into account all the other elements of the system.

It also means that there is a hierarchy in the sequence of the codes: the codes of items in the “family” category are valid only if seen within the higher level “main” category, and so forth. See also in the Ceramics digital book.

The lexicon is an open system. This means that additions can be made at will.

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The -emic and -etic dimensions

The roster reflects essentially an -emic system (on the concepts of “-emic” and “-etic” in archaeology, see e.g. Buccellati, G. 2006.) This means that it is assumed that the categories reflect a native understanding of the item in question. It further means that they are inventory specific: the concept of “jar” makes sense in relationship to other terms like bowl or cup. For the higher categories, there are in fact linguistic terms that are applicable, such as kāsu in Akkadian for a cup.

The degree to which this applies varies. For instance, in the example just given above, the variation could be considered as a lexical rather than a roster element. In other words, it seems less likely that such a minor variation may have been a matter of conscious identification on the part of the users. Even the sub-family reflects a category that may have been perceived as distinct at best by specialists rather than by normal users.

The lexicon, on the other hand, reflects an -etic dimension. This means that the criteria used to define “lexically” any given item are not inventory specific, they are drawn from systems of measuremenst or the like that would not have been familiar to the original users.

As an example, we may safely assume that the original users would distinguish colors and would be sensitive to their perception in a way that is essentially the same as ours. On the other, defining the color of a given ware as 10YR8/2 (according to the Munsell scale) is extrinsic to the ceramic inventory as such (the Munsell scale was not created for the Urkesh corpus) and measuring color in this way would be alien to Urkesh potters and users.

To say that an -etic dimension is “extrinsic” to the original inventory and alien to the native sensitivity of makers and users does not of course mean that it is invalid. Quite on the contrary. We must only be aware that they are different levels of analysis, that should not be mixed. It is the same with phonemics and phonetics, where the latter may use complex acoustic measuring system with parameters that define individual sounds – except that in the case of ancient languages we do not have native speakers, whereas in the case pf material culture we do have the original artefacts.

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A type is defined either by a single attribute or a cluster of attributes within a given (roster) category.

There is thus a hierarchy of types depending on the complexity of the lexical dimension, a complexity which is reflected in the code used to define the type: defining a ceramic vessel simply as a “jar” is at a higher level than defining it as a “necked jar,” and so forth.

The following chart shows how a type is defined, and gives at the same time a synopsis of the criteria described above to define the roster and the lexicon.

(closed, -emic)
(open, -etic)
category code code attributes
generic df cv ceramic vessel
main ZcaS j jar
family ZcaS1 n. necked
sub-family ZcaS2 h short necked
variations ZcaS3 109 slightly flared outward,restricted slightly at base of neck,neck and rim much smaller diameter than widest part of body
Here is an example of type jn.h,
a short necked jar (A8q122.4),
without the variation indicated by code 109.

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Sequence and missing attributes

Roster slots are organized in a strict sequential order: this means that each slot depends for its meaning on the preceding one(s). Thus, in the example just given above, the attribute “n.” is valid only if there is an attribute “j” that precedes it immediately.

If an attribute is missing, it is indicated by the minus sign (“-“). An example of this is found in the case of a ceramic detail that is applies only to a particular detail of the shape (say, a rim), when, however, the main shape (say a bowl or a jar) is missing.

     In such a case, the first four roster all have "-" as attributes, and there will be an attribute only in fifth position. Thus ----f stands for a particular type of rim ("flat") as in J1q651-1. J1q651-p7

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