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Harris Matrix

The Harris Matrix is a pivotal tool used by anthropologists and archaeologists worldwide to help unravel the intricate chronology of archaeological sites [1]. Developed by Dr. Edward Harris in 1973, the Matrix provides a systematic method to present and interpret stratigraphic sequences [2].

Defining the Harris Matrix

In essence, the Harris Matrix is a diagrammatic representation of the sequence of archaeological layers on a site [2].

  • Layers: Each layer, also known as a stratigraphic unit or deposit, represents a specific episode in the history of the site.
  • Sequence: The sequence, from bottom to top, corresponds to the order in which these layers were deposited over time.

This sequential arrangement of layers allows for an understanding of the chronological order of various events and activities, thus providing a relative dating mechanism.

Harris Matrix and Anthropological Research

In anthropological research, the Harris Matrix has proven invaluable in the interpretation and understanding of past human behavior [3]. It enables researchers to:

  1. Decipher the Order of Events: By analyzing the sequence of layers, researchers can determine the order in which different activities occurred. This chronological understanding helps interpret historical events and their significance.
  2. Understand Cultural Changes: By examining the artifacts within each layer, researchers can detect changes in technology, lifestyle, and culture over time.

Components of a Harris Matrix

The Harris Matrix consists of several components that help encapsulate the archaeological stratigraphy [2]:

  1. Stratigraphic Units: Each layer or deposit is represented as a stratigraphic unit.
  2. Relationships: Each unit is linked with others based on their stratigraphic relationships, such as “earlier than,” “later than,” or “contemporary with.”
Stratigraphic UnitsIndividual layers or deposits representing a specific episode.
RelationshipsLinks between units based on their stratigraphic relationships.

Constructing a Harris Matrix

The process of creating a Harris Matrix requires meticulous record-keeping and involves several steps:

  1. Identifying the Stratigraphic Units: Researchers must carefully distinguish between different layers or deposits.
  2. Determining the Relationships: The relationships between these units must be identified based on their relative positions and other factors.
  3. Creating the Matrix: The matrix is then created, with the oldest units at the bottom and the youngest at the top.

The Harris Matrix in Recent Studies

The Harris Matrix has been widely applied in recent anthropological and archaeological studies, demonstrating its continuing relevance. It has facilitated stratigraphic analysis in various research contexts, including urban archaeology, prehistoric cave sites, and underwater archaeology.

Urban Archaeology

In urban environments, where human activity has left a complex stratigraphic record over centuries or millennia, the Harris Matrix proves especially useful. For instance, it was used to decipher the archaeological sequence in the old quarter of Barcelona, Spain, where researchers could organize the complex stratigraphy spanning over two millennia.

Prehistoric Cave Sites

Similarly, prehistoric cave sites often have complicated stratigraphic sequences due to long-term occupation and natural processes. The Harris Matrix has helped in these situations too. For example, it was employed at the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc Cave in France, facilitating the understanding of prehistoric human activity and natural events over thousands of years.

Underwater Archaeology

Lastly, underwater archaeological sites, which often contain shipwrecks or submerged settlements, present unique stratigraphic challenges. Here, the Harris Matrix has also proven its worth, for instance, in the study of the ancient shipwreck at Uluburun, Turkey.

Critiques and Limitations

While the Harris Matrix is a significant tool, it is not without its limitations:

  • Simplicity: The Harris Matrix simplifies the complexities of real-world stratigraphy into a two-dimensional diagram, which may result in oversimplification [4].
  • Inapplicability: It might not apply well to all types of archaeological sites, especially those with complex and intertwined stratigraphic sequences [4].
  • Interpretation: The interpretation of the Matrix can be subjective, depending on the researcher’s experience and understanding.

The Legacy of the Harris Matrix

Despite these limitations, the Harris Matrix has greatly enhanced our ability to interpret archaeological sites and has had a profound impact on archaeological and anthropological research. Its adoption has led to more systematic recording, interpretation, and presentation of stratigraphic sequences, and it continues to be a cornerstone tool in archaeological practice.


The Harris Matrix, despite its simplicity, has withstood the test of time and continues to be a fundamental tool in anthropological research and archaeological practice. It brings order to stratigraphic chaos, enabling the construction of narratives about human history from the physical remnants of the past. As archaeology continues to evolve with new methods and technologies, the Harris Matrix will undoubtedly remain a cornerstone of the discipline.


[1] Harris, E. C. (1989). Principles of Archaeological Stratigraphy. Academic Press.

[2] Roskams, S. (2001). Excavation. Cambridge University Press.

[3] Barceló, J. A. (2001). Visualizing what might be: An introduction to virtual reality techniques in archaeology. In J. A. Barceló, M. Forte, & D. H. Sanders (Eds.), Virtual Reality in Archaeology (pp. 9-36). Archaeopress.

[4] Carver, M. (2009). Archaeological Investigation. Routledge.

Anthropologist Vasundhra - Author and Anthroholic

Vasundhra, an anthropologist, embarks on a captivating journey to decode the enigmatic tapestry of human society. Fueled by an insatiable curiosity, she unravels the intricacies of social phenomena, immersing herself in the lived experiences of diverse cultures. Armed with an unwavering passion for understanding the very essence of our existence, Vasundhra fearlessly navigates the labyrinth of genetic and social complexities that shape our collective identity. Her recent publication unveils the story of the Ancient DNA field, illuminating the pervasive global North-South divide. With an irresistible blend of eloquence and scientific rigor, Vasundhra effortlessly captivates audiences, transporting them to the frontiers of anthropological exploration.

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