Material Culture - Artifacts and the Meaning(s) They Carry

What Can the Material Culture of a Society Tell Scientists?

Floridians Bring Their Material Culture to Antiques Roadshow in 2001
Floridians Bring Their Material Culture to Antiques Roadshow in 2001. Tim Chapman / Getty Images Entertainment / Getty Images

Material culture is used in archaeology and other anthropology-related fields to refer to all the corporeal, tangible objects that are created, used, kept and left behind by past and present cultures. Material culture refers to objects that are used, lived in, displayed and experienced; and the terms includes all the things people make, including tools, pottery, houses, furniture, buttons, roads, even the cities themselves.

An archaeologist thus can be defined as a person who studies the material culture of a past society: but they're not the only ones who do that.

Material Culture Studies

Material culture studies, however, focus not just on the artifacts themselves, but rather the meaning of those objects to people. One of the features that characterize humans apart from other species is the extent to which we interact with objects, whether they are used or traded, whether they are curated or discarded.

Objects in human life can become integrated into social relationships: for example, strong emotional attachments are found between people and material culture that is connected to ancestors. Grandmother's sideboard, a teapot handed down from family member to family member, a class ring from the 1920s, these are the things that turn up in the long-established television program Antiques Roadshow, often accompanied by a family history and a vow to never let them be sold.

Recalling the Past, Constructing an Identity

Such objects transmit culture with them, creating and reinforcing cultural norms: this kind of object needs tending, this does not. Girl Scout badges, fraternity pins, even fitbit watches are "symbolic storage devices", symbols of social identity that may persist through multiple generations.

In this manner, they can also be teaching tools: this is how we were in the past, this is how we need to behave in the present.

Objects can also recall past events: antlers collected on a hunting trip, a necklace of beads obtained on holiday or at a fair, a picture book that reminds the owner of a trip, all of these objects contain a meaning to their owners, apart from and perhaps above their materiality. Gifts are set in patterned displays (shrines) in homes as markers of memory: even if the objects themselves are considered ugly by their owners, they're kept because they keep alive the memory of families and individuals that might otherwise be forgotten. Those objects leave "traces", that have established narratives associated with them.

Ancient Symbolism

All of these ideas, all of these ways that humans interact with objects today have ancient roots. We've been collecting and venerating objects since we started making tools 2.5 million years ago, and archaeologists and paleontologists are today agreed that the objects that were collected in the past contain intimate information about the cultures that collected them. Today, the debates center on how to access that information, and to what extent that is even possible.

Interestingly, there is increasing evidence that material culture is a primate thing: tool use and collecting behavior have been identified in chimpanzee and orangutan groups.

Changes in the Study of Material Culture

The symbolic aspects of material culture have been studied by archaeologists since the late 1970s. Archaeologists have always identified cultural groups by the stuff they collected and used, such as house construction methods; pottery styles; bone, stone and metal tools; and recurring symbols painted on objects and sewn into textiles. But it wasn't until the late 1970s that archaeologists began to actively think about the human-cultural material relationship.

They began to ask: does the simple description of material culture traits sufficiently define cultural groups, or should we leverage what we know and understand about the social relationships of artifacts to get to a better understanding of the ancient cultures?

What kicked that off was a recognition that groups of people who share material culture may not ever have spoken the same language, or shared the same religious or secular customs, or interacted with one another in any other way other than to exchange material goods. Are collections of artifact traits just an archaeological construct with no reality?

But the artifacts that make up material culture were meaningfully constituted and actively manipulated to attain certain ends, such as establishing status, contesting power, marking an ethnic identity, defining the individual self or demonstrating gender. Material culture both reflects society and is involved in its constitution and transformation. Creating, exchanging and consuming objects are necessary parts of displaying, negotiating and enhancing a particular public self. Objects can be seen as the blank slates upon which we project our needs, desires, ideas and values. As such, material culture contains a wealth of information about who we are, who we want to be.


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