chapter  9
45 Pages

Studying artefacts

WithElizabeth Slater

For a discipline concerned with the study of human actions and human development through time, the central place accorded in archaeology to artefacts-objects made and used by people-is not hard to understand. They are the direct products of human intelligence and, however incomplete the archaeological record and however selectively objects entered that record, they are actual items that were deliberately made and utilized. The questions may be ‘who?’, ‘where?’, ‘why?’ or ‘what?’, and the artefacts may not be able the answer these directly, but they are one of the most easily accessible and recognizable forms of evidence. Also it is the collections of objects in museums, plus the standing monuments, that form much of the public face of archaeology. Archaeologists may be ultimately concerned with the broad issues of social, political and economic systems, and the individual objects standing in serried ranks in museums may seem far removed from these, but it is the objects that are a source of fundamental data: ‘the things humankind makes and uses at any particular time and place are probably the truest representation we have of values and meaning within a society’ (Kingery 1996:ix). How far, if at all, we can approach any ‘true’ understanding or interpretation of the material record, or whether any such record is even seen to exist, is a matter of much debate (Barrett 1994; Hodder 1991), but artefacts must still be worthy of study as one of the few things to come to us directly from the past.