What is the importance of cultural artifacts?

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Cultural artifacts are of critical import to the study of humans and civilizations over the course of history. Artifacts are the concrete items cultures leave behind, such as Native American arrowheads, stone tools from early hominid groups, newspapers archived from the past, or the cell phones, TV sets, and refrigerators we will leave behind for future generations.

They are important because they comprise primary evidence for scholars to understand what happened in the past. To appreciate primary evidence, it is helpful to know what secondary evidence is. Secondary evidence is like secondhand information; these sources are the textbooks, encyclopedia articles, and/or Wikipedia pages that provide easy-to-digest explanations of past events. In theory, scholars and historians have scoured primary source artifacts to arrive at sound conclusions about the past, and they explain these conclusions to average citizens in a way that is relevant and clear.

However, scholars and historians are invariably influenced by, and carry the biases of, their times.

Consider many scholars writing about the Revolutionary Era in the US during the 1800s. These historians described European colonists as "civilizing" the Native Americans, because they were biased by the stereotypes of their era, which held that Native Americans were ignorant and childlike. However, many historians began to take a closer look at Native American cultural artifacts during the 1900s. They found that Native Americans used shells and precious stones as currency. They also found evidence of year-round habitation and agricultural practices. By returning to cultural artifacts—primary evidence—contemporary historians came to a very different understanding than historians of the 1800s: that Native Americans had advanced and complex civilizations of their own—they just looked very different from the European civilizations of the time.

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Cultural artifacts are any things (such as objects, writings, artwork) which give information about the people and the culture by whom the artifact was used. For example, if archaeologists discover a cooking utensil from a lost or ancient group of people, they are able to determine many things about the culture which used it, such as what they ate, how advanced their tools were, and how they prepared their food. This information, in turn, can provide insight about the hunting habits, food practices, and social customs (often connected to food and eating) of the people. And the ripples of information continue. 

Of course cultural artifacts are essential to learning more about the cultures and people who are now extinct; however, in modern cultures they are just as important in recording the lifestyles and practices of more recent time periods for the next generations. The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, for example, is replete with cultural artifacts of the 1950s and '60s. By looking at the campaign material used in Kennedy's presidential bid, one can see how elections were once conducted; the displays which include rotary telephones and manual typewriters certainly represent the technological artifacts of an earlier culture.

Thinking about what cultural artifacts future generations might discover about the early twenty-first century is an interesting exercise. Perhaps they will find the plethora of empty water bottles and determine that we are a culture of waste and environmental responsibility. On the other hand, they might discover artifacts which provide evidence of a culture committed to eradicating deadly diseases. In any case, these artifacts, when taken as a whole, provide valuable information about people and cultures of the past. 


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