The Grammar of the Archaeological Record

1. The System

1. System Configuration

Giorgio Buccellati – June 2010

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1.1: Introductory

We will now present a specific application of the principles and presuppositions which I have outlined in the first part (see Introduction). This application is specific in the double sense:

  1. it proposes a concrete articulation of ways and means in which the theoretical points raised can be implemented in practice;
  2. it uses an actual body of data as exemplification, the Urkesh Global Record.

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1.2: The System as a Practical Implementation of Theory

The issues raised in the Introduction of the Grammar call for a new approach to archaeological publishing – not an approach that is based on different editorial techniques, but rather one that starts from a different understanding of archaeological categories. As described in Volume 1, this is at variance from the norm, and as such it requires a demonstration of its feasibility. The system described in Volume 1 aims at doing just that.

The configuration of the system is described here under six headings.

  • A. Constituents: The concept. – Definition of the concept with an inventory of the specific properties.
  • B. Primary categorization. – The minimal constituents as they are observed in their stratigraphic context, and the paradigms into which they fit (rosters and lexica).
  • C. Stratigraphic clustering. – The correlation between space and time as the constituents are clustered according to type of contact into strata first, and then into phases and horizons.
  • D. Typological clustering. – The specific identity they assume on the basis of a transversal typological clustering.
  • E. Analytical organization of the record: data structure. – The organization of the record within an overarching archive structure: directories and files (accessed from the right-hand side).
  • F. Synthethical organization of the record: main narrative. – The organization of the record in a synthetic and sequential manner, based on conventional archaeological presentation (accessed from the left-hand side).

In a way, this corresponds (for categories B-D) to the classic distinction within a linguistic grammar into phonology (minimal constituents and their properties), morphology (primary clustering) and syntax (distributional arrangement).

In Volume 1, one will also find a detailed listing of the codes utilized, with an explanation of the underlying logic and the consequent utilization in both data entry and analysis.

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1.3: Recording and Archive

The system configuration as presented here affects two distinct moments in the confrontation with the data. The initial recording takes place first of all in the field and, subsequently, in the laboratory, the museum, the library: the grammatical categorization is applied to the data in these various phases of the work, and it is the rigor and coherence of the criteria behind the categorization (the “grammar”) that make it possible to construe a global archive all the while the analysis is taking place.

The utilization of this archive is a distinct operation that does not, in and of itself, require knowledge of the mechanisms utilized in the recording phase. It is, however, the total conceptual match between the two that makes the whole endeavor possible. It is in this sense that the word “Record” is used – to signify on the one hand the data as they are being identified and assembled, and on the other the resulting construction as it is being consulted and studied.

Throughout the Introduction and Volume 1 we will deal with the Record as such a unified system, from a conceptual point of view. (Volume 2, on the other hand, will deal exclusively with the operational mechanisms used in the initial phase of recording proper.) In one respect only will a set of observations pertain exclusively to the recording phase as such, namely in the use of codes and abbreviations, that are not needed in the consultation of the archive. They are included here for the sake of simplicity, and may simply be ignored by those who do not intend to process excavation data through the system proposed here.

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1.4: The Urkesh Global Record and the Browser Edition as Exemplification of the System

The system as described has been developed in the course of the excavations at Tell Mozan, ancient Urkesh, and the results are embodied in the publication of this global record, of which a few are currently available (e.g. A14, A16, J2), while several others are in various stages of preparation. Several more are complete and currently available for in house use, but need further editing before public release.

The ultimate form taken by the record is that of a browser edition. This edition provides a concrete exemplification of the principles enunciated in the Introduction, and of their specific articulation as described in Volume 1. The browser edition as such is described in Part Three (to be changed with? ZGx13 mDP). Volume 2 contains technical details, not needed for a normal use of the browser edition.

A primary goal of the system, and of the browser edition that derives from it, remains the primacy of the stratigraphic record as such, which is deemed to be completed at the end of the excavation. Thus, in the measure in which our own ability to work within the system as here described increases, we intend to publish the full stratigraphic record of any given operation at end of each excavation season, allowing for typological updates to the extent in which our own typological analysis proceeds. What makes the electronic publication unique in this respect is precisely the ability to update the archive in such a way that it remains at all times an integrated whole.

It must be noted that the system itself was developing while excavation was taking place, and the programs were being tested while the data were being recorded. Conversely, I was reluctant to describe the system in any programmatic sort of way before its full practical implementation could be documented, as we can do now with the current two CDs (add link; ZGx13 mDP), and will do even more abundantly soon with the publication of all other operations at Urkesh/Tell Mozan.

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1.5: Goals and Limits

As I mentioned above (Introduction), a grammar aims to be powerful more than it aims to be correct: the sum total of the sentences that can be spoken in a language is a grammar of sorts, and a correct one at that, but quite obviously far from powerful. In my view, the stratigraphic record remains, in the standard approach, by and large ungrammaticalized. The data are understood as a language might be for which no grammar is provided; but their integration into a unified conceptual structure is incomplete and inarticulate.

My main goal is to suggest ways to produce such a grammar, by proposing one specific grammar (Volume 1) as it is applied to a given body of data (Volume 2). I would like to claim some power for this approach, but I will not claim that it is the correct grammar. I hope that it might generate sufficient interest in the subject matter, and that the supporting exemplification will prove to be sufficiently valid, so as to elicit a new awareness for the underlying problems, a realistic sense of reliance on the electronic medium used for its genuine powers, and a discussion of the substantive issues involved in this effort to “grammaticalize” the stratigraphic record.

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