Cultural Artifact: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is a Cultural Artifact?
  • 0:54 Historical Cultural Artifacts
  • 2:10 Modern Cultural Artifacts
  • 3:15 Time Capsules
  • 4:09 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Juli Yelnick

Juli has traveled the world engaging in cultural immersion experiences that bring her Master of Liberal Studies findings to light.

What does an ancient fertility goddess figurine have in common with a smartphone? What do these items reveal about the civilizations who produced them? This lesson explains what we can learn about people by examining the objects they have made or used in their society.

What Is a Cultural Artifact?

People make things. Although highly challenged in the 20th century by Jane Goodall's observations of chimpanzees, the capability to make tools was the distinction that scientists had traditionally used to differentiate humans from other primates. As a result of all of this production, human civilizations have left a lot of things lying around over the past several hundred years.

A cultural artifact is an item that, when found, reveals valuable information about the society that made or used it. What is qualified as a cultural artifact? Burial coins, painted pottery, telephones or anything else that evidences the social, political, economic or religious organization of the people whom they belonged to can be considered cultural artifacts.

Burial Coin from Athens c. 450 B.C.E.
Owl Coin

Historical Cultural Artifacts

So, how do we find these cultural artifacts? Archaeologists uncover many historically-significant artifacts that shed some light on how people lived in ancient societies. Remember, most of what we think we know about prehistoric civilizations is interpretation rather than hard fact.

Venus of Willendorf
Venus of Willendorf

Let's look at an example. This 25,000-year old stone figurine was found in Austria in 1908; her name is Venus of Willendorf, which means 'Woman of Willendorf.' She is a cultural artifact because we can better understand the values of the people who made her simply by looking at how a woman was portrayed at the time. What do her exaggerated breasts and belly tell us? Why doesn't she have any facial features?

An artifact tells a story, but the story might be heard differently by each archaeologist, anthropologist or casual museum goer. It's important when examining a cultural artifact to use other clues that help piece together a more complete picture of the entire society. In this case, using what we know about Stone Age societies, this figurine is interpreted as having been a symbol, or an item that represents something else, of fertility and the life-giving force of both women and the earth.

Modern Cultural Artifacts

Not all cultural artifacts are ancient. We are making, purchasing, selling and throwing out items every day that could be considered cultural artifacts. Just as a Stone Age figurine of a fertility goddess can hint at the level of technology and medical knowledge of that time, a smartphone can be used as evidence of the way people communicate in the early 21st century.

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