In situ, a Latin expression used in English and other languages, is possibly the most important term in archaeology. It means the original site, spot, or context, and is usually mentioned when discussing an excavation, where an object’s findspot must be accurately recorded. In archaeology, the value of an object is in its relation to the space and the other objects around it; analysis and technology can reveal what something was made of, how, and when, it could even hint at how it was used, but only the context can tell us what it meant to the people who used it. This is a crucial concept in studying provenance, the history of an object—knowing where something came from means little without knowing where it started. (N.B. the term doesn’t really have any application in the fine art world, only archaeology).
Why is it important that an artefact be discovered in situ? As one archaeologist said, “it’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.”