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What are Artifacts?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By ceilingcat — On Nov 30, 2012

@JessicaLynn - It's true that most artifacts don't look impressive. However, I think archeologists can probably learn more from archeology artifacts that are objects from every day life, rather than things that are really impressive but only used by rich people. After all, the average person and a rich person don't exactly live the same way.

By JessicaLynn — On Nov 30, 2012

I agree with the article that people really do have a romanticized view of archeological artifacts and archeology in general. However, I watched a documentary awhile back, and archeology looks like it's really hard work! You have to go to a lot of schooling, and also participating on a dig isn't easy.

And to top it off, most archeological artifacts aren't as impressive to the every day person as the stuff you'll see on Indiana Jones.

By indemnifyme — On Nov 29, 2012

@Monika - I agree with you. However, I imagine there is some reason that anthropologists have decided that something can be an artifact after only 25 years. Maybe because society can change rapidly in only a few decades?

By Monika — On Nov 28, 2012

I'm really surprised that something can be considered an artifact after only 25 years. As the article said, I do think of culture artifacts as being from the distant past. I feel like if there are still people around that were alive when something was used, it shouldn't be considered an artifact.

I feel like an artifact is something that should be studied, and something that is only 25 years old doesn't exactly need studying. I think we have a pretty clear picture of how people lived only 25 years ago!

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Historical Index contributor, Tricia...
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