U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service
II. HISTORIC CONTEXTS FOR ARCHEOLOGICAL EVALUATION
Historic contexts provide a basis for judging a property's significance and, ultimately, its eligibility under the Criteria. Historic contexts are those patterns, themes, or trends in history by which a specific occurrence, property, or site is understood and its historic meaning (and ultimately its significance) is made clear. Context discussion includes relevant information from what is often called a "culture history" or "historical and archeological background" section in archeological site reports. This bulletin addresses evaluation, but survey and identification goals also should be based on historic contexts.
A historic context is a body of thematically, geographically, and temporally linked information. For an archeological property, the historic context is the analytical framework within which the property's importance can be understood and to which an archeological study is likely to contribute important information.
A historic context is multi-dimensional; numerous contexts may be appropriate for an individual archeological property. For example, an architectural context would be applicable if one were nominating a property with a standing structure that is directly associated with the archeological deposits and is also an excellent example of an important architectural style that has been rarely documented.
Many factors influence the determination of which contexts are most important vis-a-vis a given archeological property. These factors include the type of property; the data sets and archeological patterning represented at the site; the region in which the property is located; the time period that the property was occupied or used; the history of the region where the site is located; the role that the property played in the historical development of the jurisdiction, state, and region in which it is located; the property's role in America's history; the information identified in the State historic preservation plan based upon work and research that has already been done; and the research interests and theoretical orientation of the archeologist.
Archeological properties can be associated with a variety of historic contexts, and these contexts will contain varying levels of refinement and sophistication. Only those contexts important to understanding and justifying the significance of the property must be discussed.
The discussion of historic contexts should be organized in a manner that best presents the context information for the given property. Document the supporting evidence for the significance criteria checked and for the information categories (Areas of Significance, Historic Function, Period of Significance, and Cultural Affiliation). If applicable, document Architectural Classification, Criteria Considerations, Significant Dates, Significant Person, and Architect/Builder. Each information category does not need to be discussed separately. Nevertheless, the reader should be able to see the link between the information presented in the discussion of historic contexts and that provided in the information categories. For example, if "Education" is entered under"Areas of Significance," the "Historic Context" discussion must include sufficient information to justify entering that category.
In addition, the information presented in the historic contexts and in other sections of the significance section must be interrelated. For example, a nomination that includes hypotheses on economic development among its important research questions should have a discussion of the property's, district's, or region's economic development in the historic context.
Major decisions about identifying, evaluating, registering, and treating historic properties are most reliably made in the context of other related properties. A historic context is an organizational format that groups information about related historic properties, based on a theme, geographic limits and chronological period. Contexts should identify gaps in data and knowledge to help determine what is significant information.
The National Register bulletin How to Apply the National Register Criteria for Evaluation states that, ".a property is not eligible if it cannot be related to a particular time period or cultural group and, as a result, lacks any historic context within which to evaluate the importance of the information to be gained." However, pre-contact sites which lack temporal diagnostics or radiocarbon dates may still be eligible within a context which defines important atemporal or non-cultural questions, such as those that concern site formation processes or archeological methodology. Therefore, sites of unknown age, or broadly defined age, may be found eligible within a research framework which specifies the important information potential of such sites.
Evaluation uses the historic context as the framework within which to apply the criteria for evaluation to specific properties or property types. Historic contexts are linked to actual historic properties through the concept of the property type. The following procedures should be included in creating a historic context:
1. Identify the concept, time period and geographic limits for the
All archeological sites have some potential to convey information about the past, however, not all of that information may be important to our understanding of the pre and post-contact periods of our history. The nature of important information is linked to the theories or paradigms that drive the study of past societies. It is important to realize that historic contexts, and therefore site significance, should be updated and changed to keep pace with current work in the discipline. As Nicholas Honerkamp (1988:5) writes:
To assist in the preparation of National Register nominations, all SHPOs have gathered information, such as county and state histories, cartographic sources, archeological and architectural site files, and management documents that foster the identification, evaluation, and preservation of cultural resources. These materials may include previously identified local, regional, or statewide historic contexts. The State, Tribal or Federal historic preservation office may be able to provide relevant historic contexts. In many cases, the "Areas of Significance" or the historic "Functions and Uses," listed in How to Complete the National Register Registration Form suggest appropriate historic contexts. Helpful information regarding historic contexts also may be found in multiple property National Register submissions for similar historic properties (see "Appendix B" of this bulletin). For discussion on evaluating archeological properties in context, please see "Evaluating Properties in Context" in Section IV. Further guidance may be found in the National Register bulletin How to Complete the National Register Multiple Property Documentation Form. For additional guidance, consult the National Park Service's Thematic Framework (1996). The Thematic Framework provides guidance on the development of historic contexts. Consideration of the main themes and associated topics will promote a framework that includes many levels of community and regional history. The framework is designed to assist in the development of historic contexts by guiding researchers to ask thorough questions about a property or region. The text of the Thematic Framework is available at www.nps.gov/history/history/thematic.html. While the Thematic Framework may serve as a guide for developing contexts, please see, "Areas of Significance," in Section IV of this bulletin for guidance on determining the area of significance.
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