About The Matrix

In e + f + g, the sequences of plans (E-G) are merged and then combined with the data from the profiles in Fig. 21. The final stratigraphic sequence for this site is a-g, which is divided into periods (K).

The Harris Matrix and Its Significance to Archaeology

Before the creation of the Harris Matrix in early 1973, the stratigraphic paradigm for archaeology was the ‘section’ or ‘profile.’ The concept of a section was taken from geological stratigraphy and is still commonly seen as a column through geological stratification. This column is commonly presumed to represent the ‘stratigraphic sequence’ of a given area. Except in the simplest of stratigraphic situations, the column, section or profile, cannot represent the stratigraphic sequence of a body of stratification since complex archaeological sites can have hundreds, or thousands, of stratigraphic units within a very confined area.

Early Notions of Stratigraphy

In the 1950s, with the publication of several books on archaeological methods, archaeologists finally came to understand that all stratification, except surfaces, needed to be recorded in order to understand the development of a site through time. The section, however, remained the paradigm, much to the detriment of the stratigraphic record.

This paradigm led to a major crisis in the 1960s, with the accumulation of great bodies of stratigraphic records, but with only the section to demonstrate the stratigraphic sequence. Before the Harris Matrix, the term ‘stratigraphic sequence’ was seldom used, and most individual surfaces on sites were not being recorded, leading sites to be under-recorded by 51 percent or more.

The first stratigraphic sequence (Harris Matrix) for an archaeological site under excavation was made in 1974 on the excavation of the remains of the South Gate to the Roman city of Winchester.
Harris Matrix diagrams enter the digital world, as archaeologists in Italy compose the diagrams on an Apple iPad in 2015.

Changing the Stratigraphic Paradigm

Surfaces are like time: they do not exist unless recorded in a diagram. In the case of surfaces, plans must record the boundaries of a surface area and measurements of its contours to accurately reconstruct a surface. Therefore, sections are pictures through stratification, not statements of its stratigraphic sequence, any more than a picture of a sunrise tells one anything more than the fact that it is daytime, but not the day or its position in the sequence of days, months and years.

The Harris Matrix allowed archaeologists to see the stratigraphic sequence of such sites and increase the value of this task for the first time. As such, the Harris Matrix changed the stratigraphic paradigm in archaeology from one dimension to four dimensions: depth of deposits, length and width of surface areas, and relative time sequence. With the Harris Matrix, these dimensions are represented in the relationships of all the stratigraphic units through time.