Context Is Everything

By Glenn Tolle

glass stopper found on the beach

When an archaeologist or a paleontologist finds a piece of history they make (extensive) notes on where the piece was found. They do this because 95% of the important information that piece holds is in its context. An arrowhead or fossil, without contextual information, tells experts next to nothing. That arrowhead or fossil could have been found anywhere, in any position. Some museums in the past have even thrown out specimens in their collection that lack adequate contextual information. 

sea pottery and fossils from the beach

I bring all this up because we, as beachcombers, collect both natural and man-made history. We might think the fossils and beach glass we collect are just cool, pretty items, but they’re not. Those pretty items tell a story about the past. They’re artifacts, the forgotten remnants of history. We as beachcombers are often first responders to possible dig sites. The trash beaches and fossil beaches we lust for are the same beaches that archaeologists and paleontologists might lust for. While we lust for something cool to put in our pockets, scientists lust for something to put in an academic report. 

fossils and beach glass found on great lakes

All this in mind, here are six steps that I recommend all beachcombers take to safeguard against the loss of all contextual information. 

  1. Keep track of the beaches that you visit.
  1. Keep your finds from a particular beach together in one designated (and labeled) place.
  1. Keep a log of your finds, the day you found them, and any interesting/identifying characteristics your finds might have.
  1. If you find a fossil eroding out of a bluff or fallen next to a bluff, make a note of exactly where you found it. Be as precise as possible. 
  1. Educate yourself on the historical and natural history of the various beaches you visit and the land that immediately surrounds each beach.
  1. If a piece seems special, reach out to a scientist or historian, who might have knowledge on the piece’s significance. 

beach bricks and beach fossils

For many beach finds, it’s very hard to get good contextual information. A piece might be too tumbled or might have traveled too far from its original place of origin to be of use. These six steps won’t ensure that the historical context of your finds won’t be lost, but it will ensure that some history is preserved. See you at the beach!

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2021 issue.

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