Throughout these blogs a number of cultural ideas have been or will be discussed, ranging from social structure and religion to art and music to architecture and literature. Over the course of the next few blogs entries we will discussion how philosophy and religions have shaped laws, politics and economics of the last 500 years. Each of the before mentioned entities combine to create the unique culture each of us inhabit. These cultural ideas form an integral part of humanities identity as a whole, but at the unique root of any given culture is its artifacts.
We must remember culture has many definitions, but most scholars agree culture encompasses the sum of all socially transmitted or learned behavior patterns, interactions, and belief. Culture is also the products of humankind, both tangible works and intangible thoughts. Cultural artifacts are, in the most basic sense, those products of human work or thought.
Cultural artifacts include a wide range of physical objects, from works of art and architecture, to digital recordings or e-mail messages. Anything humans create could be argued to be a cultural artifact. The information gathered from such artifacts depends, to a great degree, on the cultural knowledge of the person interpreting its meaning. For example, Mayan hieroglyphs have less meaning to the untrained individual than they do to an epigrapher with knowledge of that system of writing. The various forms of cultural artifacts found around the world have a wide distribution, but all cultural artifacts tell us a great deal about both the maker and the user. Over time, the artifact, its meaning, and the way its meaning is interpreted may evolve because human cultures are constantly changing and, therefore, this changes the lens through which the artifact is viewed.
Cultural artifacts may date to prehistory, or they may be part of today’s culture. No matter what time period the artifact dates to they tell us about the maker and the user. Consider a television. What can it tell us about the society of the maker? Is this artifact made by a single maker or by more than one individual? What, if any, tools are needed to create this artifact? What technology must exist for it to have been created? Could it have any spiritual or religious importance? Is the object found frequently, or is it a rare find? Is it found in areas of high economic status? Is it found in areas of known low economic status? What might it be used for? Are there any known cultural taboos associated with the object? What other artifacts are related to this object, and how are they related? What use does the artifact have or appear to have?
When asked about a television, some of these questions seem out of place, but that is because the television is familiar to modern people in most parts of the world. Now, consider asking these questions about cultural artifacts less familiar to you, such as the Great Pyramid at Giza or perhaps a coin from a 17th century shipwreck. Consider how asking these kinds of questions might help one to know more about the makers and users of an artifact less familiar to one’s own culture.
As we continue to move into an increasingly technologically advanced world, culture and the preservation of culture continues to change. The forms that cultural artifacts take will continue to change. Also, the ability to understand these cultural artifacts will depend on the context in which they are left or rediscovered and also their condition. Consider media stored on a computer disk. Although the media may be very representative of culture, the format in which it has been saved, the disk, is also indicative of the culture. If people are unable to access the information because of technological advances or a degradation of the medium itself over time, the value of the artifact in terms of the information it can present changes.
Cultural artifacts are always subject to the interpretation of the viewer (in many cases, these are archaeologists or historians). A scholars background knowledge of the culture informs their hypotheses about what a particular object may have represented or what use it could have had within a given cultural context. The more historical information there is to corroborate their hypotheses, the more certain the researcher can be that his or her evaluation of the artifact is a correct assessment. There is, however, always room for error.
In our current day and age artifacts of our own culture and other cultures surround us everywhere. In fact, the many cultural artifacts we live amongst have deep roots. Many times the roots of an artifact are so deeply engrained in our culture and we do not necessarily understand where they originate.
Sayre, H. M. (2010). Discovering the humanities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.
——-, H. M. (2013). Discovering the humanities. 2nd, ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall Pearson.