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Stratigraphic Analysis and The Matrix: connecting and reusing digital records and archives of archaeological investigationsOpen Materials

Keith May, James S. Taylor and Ceri Binding

Cite this as: May, K., Taylor, J.S. and Binding, C. 2023 Stratigraphic Analysis and The Matrix: connecting and reusing digital records and archives of archaeological investigations, Internet Archaeology 61.


Illustration showing archaeological stratigraphic laws and principles
Illustration of archaeological stratigraphic laws and principles. Taken from What is The Matrix? How do archaeologists use stratigraphy? YouTube

Stratigraphic data and relationships form the backbone of all the related archaeological records from each excavated site and, along with the phasing and interpretive information derived through stratigraphic analysis, are essential for chronological modelling, broader synthesis of inter-site phases and periods. We argue, in this paper and elsewhere, stratigraphic data should be a required component in the digital archives of the growing body of archaeological information and reports generated through the commercial archaeological sector - in the UK and internationally.

Not every site has complex stratigraphy, but understanding the nature of the stratigraphy, be that deep or shallow, complex or otherwise, enables researchers to piece together the underlying details of how the excavator(s) arrived at the interpretations they have made about the site. The stratigraphic record, including associated relationships and data, which in the case of complex stratigraphy are usually visualised in the form of a stratigraphic matrix diagram, acts as a primary, if not the primary evidence for how, and in what order, the site was excavated. As such the stratigraphic data can be the key mechanism that enables anyone less familiar with the site, to re-visit and re-use the excavation records; understand what data is most relevant for addressing certain research questions; or grasp the nature of the chronological sequence encountered; and piece together the underlying details of how the excavator(s) arrived at their interpretations. However such records are often only held on paper or as scanned image copies (as PDFs) of matrix diagrams that cannot easily be re-used with all the associated data. This article presents outcomes from The Matrix project (AHRC AH/T002093/1) that address the current problems caused by the lack of standardised approaches to digital archiving of archaeological data using the case study of stratigraphic and phasing data.

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  • Keywords: stratigraphy, recording, excavation, analysis, Harris matrix, temporal reasoning, phasing, data standards, digital archive
  • Accepted: 15 Feb 2023. Published: 4 April 2023
  • Funding: This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via funding under their grants (AH/T002093/1)
  • Code: Phaser prototype and documentation available on Github
  • PDF download (main article text only)

Corresponding author: Keith MayORCID logo
Historic England

James S. TaylorORCID logo
University of York

Ceri BindingORCID logo
University of South Wales

Full text

Figure 1: Animated illustration of archaeological stratigraphic laws and principles

Figure 2: Venn diagram showing the total numbers of documents from a sample of 10,000+ OASIS reports containing each combination of chronological dating evidence types as defined by each segment label (from Moody 2019)

Figure 3a: Example of post-excavation analysis documentation from MOLA-Headland Infrastructure A14 project (Image: MOLA-Headland Infrastructure and National Highways)

Figure 3b: Animated graphic of post-excavation analysis documentation from MOLA-Headland Infrastructure A14 project

Figure 4: Typical interpretive land use diagram, with dates added (after Westman and Shepherd 1992, 441, fig. 4). Downloaded from ADS

Figure 5: Phasing Index example - Index of Archaeological Association. Museum of London Archaeology (MOLA) Digital Archive File (XSM10 – IAA.csv downloaded from ADS and converted to IAA.xlsx)

Figure 6: Examples of commonly used excavation recording sheets

Figure 7: Overview of work flow processes for stratigraphic analysis of complex stratigraphy

Figure 8: Process modelling diagram ('To Be' model) developed to inform development of the prototype software

Figure 9: Different archaeological trajectories followed by projects depending on funding sources, resulting in different digital outputs (to archive) at different stages in a project's process

Figure 10: Screen shot of ASEbase 'Data Map/Matrix' analysis screen. Courtesy of Guy Hopkinson, ASE

Figure 11: Screen shot of Bonn Matrix software (version 5.43)

Figure 12: Context stratigraphy as a directed graph structure

Figure 13: Matrix element containment hierarchy

Figure 14: Animation showing the derived temporal relationship 'overlapping' between contexts (1392) and (1396) on separate strands of the stratigraphic matrix.

Figure 15: Colour coding to signal measures of confidence and evidence for temporal relationships (see Figure 20)

Figure 16: International Commission on Stratigraphy - chronostratigraphic chart (Cohen et al. 2023)

Figure 17: Video capture showing example use of Phaser 'Validation' tab.

Figure 18: Allen temporal operators annotated on original Excel spreadsheet to show the temporal relationships implicitly in Harris Matrix diagram of Silbury Hill, downloaded from ADS archive.

Figure 19: Video capture showing example of checking derived temporal relationships displayed in Phaser 'Temporal' tab

Figure 20: Colour coded discrepancies between stratigraphic relationships and temporal relationships derived from the dating evidence within each context

Figure 21: Possible relationships (Harris 1989, 36, fig. 9)

Figure 22: Stratigraphic relation inheritance between contexts, sub-groups, groups

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