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Provenance: An Archaeologist’s Perspective

F. Beardsley
Department of Anthropology, Univ of California– Riverside, Riverside, CA

Among the first questions asked in the field of archaeology are whence did an object come? and what is the source of its material? Such questions apply as much to the raw composition of a ceramic bowl as they do to a stone tool or ornament, the pigment used in a painting, or even the building material recruited in architectural features. To answer these questions, we call upon the tools of provenance studies, especially those frequently employed in geology and geochemistry: petrography, chemical and stable isotope analyses, experimental methods that promise efficiency, reliability and economy, and the development of comparative databases for both sources and materials. For us, knowing the source or most likely source of an item and its constituent properties enables us to identify a specific range of variables that reflect alternative cultural milieux which ultimately contribute to explanations of culture history and traditions. Most provenance studies in archaeology are applied to ceramics and stone, where the composition and microstructure of the basic raw materials remain relatively unaltered by the manufacturing process. These efforts, however, have still only made comparatively limited inroads into the accumulating list of unresolved questions. Other materials also continue to challenge us, including those of organic origin such as tars, oils, protein residues, pollens and phytoliths, as well as fossils, and the compound mixtures of ores used to produce metals.

AAPG Search and Discovery Article #90904©2001 AAPG Pacific Section Meeting, Universal City, California