How Can I Get My Artifact Identified?

I found an artifact--what the heck is it?

Calipers and cotton gloves are used during the analysis of artifacts.
Calipers and cotton gloves are used during the analysis of artifacts. Kris Hirst (c) 2006

Artifacts—remnants of ancient past cultures—can be seen in museums all over the world. But since the past is all around us, just about anybody anywhere can stumble across something that looks old—an arrowhead, a potsherd, a worked shell, a fossil, a bone—and sometimes, just something strange. So, how do you find out about the thingamajig you found, or inherited, or bought somewhere? Things you might ask could be:

  • Is my object archaeological or geological?
  • How do I find out what kind of artifact it is?
  • Who made my artifact, or what culture does my artifact come from?
  • How old is it?
  • Is it a fake?
  • How much is it worth?

It's really hard for a professional to determine the age or characteristics of an artifact with even the best picture—harder still to determine if it's real or not, so eventually you may just need to take the object to an archaeologist and ask them. If you know where the object came from or have an idea of how old it is or what culture it belonged to, you might consider finding a specialist in that area. But if you're clueless about the weird thing that your daughter brought home from school, just reach out to the nearest archaeologist, historian, or geologist.

Locate Your Nearest Archaeologist

It's best practice to find someone near to you: artifact identification is tricky, and it might be helpful if you could easily just take the object to them to see it. In addition, if you found it locally, the odds are better that someone local will be able to readily identify something that was made locally. If you don't know which category it falls into, start with any one of these three: historian, archaeologist, geologist. Someone who teaches or works in archaeology, history, or geology will likely recognize what category the object falls into, and they may also have an idea on who you could contact next. If you pick somebody local, you might also find a new friend. 

Luckily, archaeologists are much closer than you think. An archaeologist could be as close as the nearest anthropology or classical history or art history department of your local university, or the state archaeologist's or geologist's office, a nearby museum or historical society, or a professional or amateur association. There are even businesses that conduct archaeology, called cultural resource or heritage firms. To find these, use Google: simply search for "archaeology" and the name of your town and state.

U.S. Contacts for Archaeologists

If you're looking into the local university for an archaeologist, you probably will not find an archaeology department. Geologists are in geology departments, historians can be found in history departments, but archaeologists in the U.S. are generally in anthropology, classics, or art history departments. In the US archaeology is a subdiscipline of anthropology, but trained archaeologists can also become classicists (people who are interested in Roman or Greek archaeology) or art historians.

If you have a university or college in town, try that. Call one of those departments—the administrative assistant who answers the phone is a great place to start. If you don't, you can locate nearby graduate programs in archaeology (where you can find places with multiple archaeologists) here:

Another place to find knowledgeable people is in professional and amateur societies or cultural resource management firms:

Making the Contact

Once you've identified a person to talk to, you might be able to call or email them. Describe your object, and where you found it, and then ask if you can send an image attachment to them. It's possible that the person you reach will be able to identify your artifact or recommend a better person to contact on the basis of your description or image. It is also possible that an archaeologist won't be available right away—many of them are gone excavating for part or most of the year, but you can likely reach them using email.

What Do I Need to Tell Them?

Be prepared to tell them where you found it–in a field, in a shop, inherited from your great-aunt, whatever. Anything about the object's context (where it was found) may help with the identification. They may want to take a good look at it through a microscope, but professional archaeologists won't take it from you. 

If the person tells you they would be happy for you to email an image—remember nobody these days should open email attachments unless they are certain about where they came from—send a few images, of different angles of the artifact, and put in something for scale, like a ruler or a coin.

Finally, ask if they have any suggestions on how you could learn more. There might be associations you could join or books or websites that might have more information about the people that made the object. The past is all around us, so take the opportunity to learn something new, every day!