An artifact can have numerous definitions. In anthropology and history, the typical definition is that it is a product of some society, usually intentionally made by someone in that society. These can be ancient things, like Ming vases or soapstone carvings, or they can be fairly recent. They may be defined as being at least 25 years old, though people may be used to thinking of them as much older and from societies in the distant past.
Ancient artifacts should not be confused with fossils. Finding dinosaur bones or the skull of a woolly mammoth isn’t really finding the product of a society. On the other hand, a carefully sculpted weapon made of a woolly mammoth tusk would be an artifact, and an incredibly exciting find. This definition, though, can get a little confusing. For instance, an archaeologist might ponder whether a grain of rice in an unearthed cavern is the product of a society or an accident. Clearly if it was a rice-growing society, it is a production of that society instead of just a random wild grain of rice.
Similarly, there’s a difference between finding the bones of people and finding the things they’re buried with. The bones are not exactly artifacts, but the things that accompany them are, including any type of coffin, clothing, jewelry, or other things that the society considered necessary to the burial. In contrast, if decoration existed on the body, like a filled tooth, this might be considered an artifact too, since it was clearly manmade and a product of the society.
Artifacts help create pictures of what a society thought was important and what its major crafts or work was. The pictures are often incomplete, and new finds from the same society may completely change the way historians or archaeologists view it. A simple tool fashioned out of bone or a specific type of metal might completely change the way people look at ancient or prehistoric societies and give more information about the human condition long ago in various parts of the world.
Today's society often holds a very romantic view of archaeology, possibly influenced by films like the Indiana Jones series where the characters are always after fantastic items. Though most people may not believe that such items hold magical powers, they may expect them to look beautiful, in shining gold or with elaborate carvings. While archaeology has unearthed its share of beautiful objects from past cultures, many times it is the simple everyday things that communicate more about a culture’s products. People in America stumble over Indian arrowheads on a regular basis, but don’t necessarily see these as important artifacts of the many groups of Native Americans that once thrived in North America.