What is the importance of cultural artifacts?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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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.