Artifact (archaeology)

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Mycenaean stirrup jar from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) Syria, 1400-1300 BC Mycenaean stirrup vase Louvre AO19201.jpg
Mycenaean stirrup jar from Ras Shamra (Ugarit) Syria, 1400–1300 BC

An artifact, [lower-alpha 1] or artefact (see American and British English spelling differences), is a general term for an item made or given shape by humans, such as a tool or a work of art, especially an object of archaeological interest. [1] In archaeology, the word has become a term of particular nuance and is defined as an object recovered by archaeological endeavor, which may be a cultural artifact having cultural interest.


Artifact is the general term used in archaeology, while in museums the equivalent general term is normally "object", and in art history perhaps artwork or a more specific term such as "carving". The same item may be called all or any of these in different contexts, and more specific terms will be used when talking about individual objects, or groups of similar ones.

Artifacts exist in many different forms and can sometimes be confused with ecofacts and features; all three of these can sometimes be found together at archaeological sites. They can also exist in different types of context depending on the processes that have acted on them over time. A wide variety of analyses take place to analyze artifacts and provide information on them. However, the process of analyzing artifacts through scientific archaeology can be hindered by the looting and collecting of artifacts, which sparks ethical debate.

A 2nd century AD Sarmatian-Parthian gold necklace and amulet from the Black Sea region. Samartian-Persian necklace and amulet.png
A 2nd century AD Sarmatian-Parthian gold necklace and amulet from the Black Sea region.


Artefacts can come from any archaeological context or source such as:

Examples include stone tools, pottery vessels, metal objects such as weapons and items of personal adornment such as buttons, jewelry and clothing. Bones that show signs of human modification are also examples. Natural objects, such as fire cracked rocks from a hearth or plant material used for food, are classified by archaeologists as ecofacts rather than as artefacts.

A Crusading Period spoon from 1017 that was found on archaeological excavation of Tursiannotko in Pirkkala, Finland. Birckala 1017 spoon.jpg
A Crusading Period spoon from 1017 that was found on archaeological excavation of Tursiannotko in Pirkkala, Finland.

Artefacts exist as a result of behavioural and transformational processes. A behavioural process involves acquiring raw materials, manufacturing these for a specific purpose and then discarding after use. Transformational processes begin at the end of behavioural processes; this is when the artefact is changed by nature and/or humans after it has been deposited. Both of these processes are significant factors in evaluating the context of an artefact. [2]

The context of an artefact can be broken into two categories: primary context and secondary context. A matrix is a physical setting within which an artefact exists, and a provenience refers to a specific location within a matrix. When an artefact is found in the realm of primary context, the matrix and provenience have not been changed by transformational processes. However, the matrix and provenience are changed by transformational processes when referring to secondary context. Artefacts exist in both contexts, and this is taken into account during the analysis of them. [2]

Artefacts are distinguished from stratigraphic features and ecofacts. Stratigraphic features are non-portable remains of human activity that include hearths, roads, deposits, trenches and similar remains. Ecofacts, also referred to as biofacts, are objects of archaeological interest made by other organisms, such as seeds or animal bone. [2]

Natural objects that humans have moved but not changed are called manuports. Examples include seashells moved inland or rounded pebbles placed away from the water action that made them.

Curmsun Disc - Obverse, Jomsborg, 980s, Burial site of king Harald Bluetooth The Curmsun Disc - Obverse.png
Curmsun Disc - Obverse, Jomsborg, 980s, Burial site of king Harald Bluetooth

These distinctions are often blurred; a bone removed from an animal carcass is a biofact but a bone carved into a useful implement is an artefact. Similarly there can be debate over early stone objects that could be either crude artefact or naturally occurring and happen to resemble early objects made by early humans or Homo sapiens . It can be difficult to distinguish the differences between actual man-made lithic artefact and geofacts – naturally occurring lithics that resemble man-made tools. It is possible to authenticate artifacts by examining the general characteristics attributed to man-made tools and local characteristics of the site. [3]

Artefacts, features and ecofacts can all be located together at sites. Sites may include different arrangements of the three; some might include all of them while others might only include one or two. Sites can have clear boundaries in the form of walls and moats, but this is not always the case. Sites can be distinguished through categories, such as location and past functions. How artefacts exist at these sites can provide archaeological insight. An example of this would be utilising the position and depth of buried artefacts to determine a chronological timeline for past occurrences at the site. [2]

Modern archaeologists take care to distinguish material culture from ethnicity, which is often more complex, as expressed by Carol Kramer in the dictum "pots are not people." [4]


Artifact analysis is determined by what type of artifact is being examined. Lithic analysis refers to analyzing artifacts that are created with stones and are often in the form of tools. Stone artifacts occur often throughout prehistoric times and are, therefore, a crucial aspect in answering archaeological questions about the past. On the surface, lithic artifacts can help archaeologists study how technology has developed throughout history by showing a variety of tools and manufacturing techniques from different periods of time. However, even deeper questions can be answered through this type of analysis; these questions can revolve around topics that include how societies were organized and structured in terms of socialization and the distribution of goods. The following lab techniques all contribute to the process of lithic analysis: petrographic analysis, neutron activation, x-ray fluorescence, particle-induced x-ray emission, individual flake analysis and mass analysis. [5]

Another type of artifact analysis is ceramic analysis, which is based around the archaeological study of pottery. This type of analysis can help archaeologists gain information on the raw materials that were used and how they were utilized in the creation of pottery. Laboratory techniques that allow for this are mainly based around spectroscopy. The different types of spectroscopy used include atomic absorption, electrothermal atomic absorption, inductively coupled plasma-atomic emission and x-ray fluorescence. Ceramic analysis does more than just provide information on raw materials and pottery production; it helps provide insight to past societies in terms of their technology, economy and social structure. [6] [7]

Additionally, faunal analysis exists to study artifacts in the form of animal remains. Just as with lithic artifacts, faunal remains are extremely common within the field of archaeology. Faunal analysis provides insight to trade due to animals being exchanged in different markets over time and being traded over long distances. Faunal remains can also provide information on social status, ethnic distinctions and dieting from previous complex societies. [8]

Dating artifacts and providing them with a chronological timeline is a crucial part of artifact analysis. The different types of analyses above can all assist in the process of artifact dating. The major types of dating include relative dating, historical dating and typology. Relative dating occurs when artifacts are placed in a specific order in relation to one another while historical dating occurs for periods of written evidence; relative dating was the only form of dating for prehistoric periods of time. Typology is the process that groups together artifacts that are similar in material and shape. This strategy is based around the ideas that styles of objects match certain time periods and that these styles change slowly over time. [9]


Artifact collecting and looting has sparked heavy debate in the archaeological realm. Looting in archaeological terms is when artifacts are dug up from sites and collected in private or sold before they are able to be excavated and analyzed through formal scientific archaeology. The debate is centered around the difference in beliefs between collectors and archaeologists. Archaeologists are focused on excavation, context and lab work when it comes to artifacts, while collectors are motivated by varying personal desires. This brings many to ask themselves the archaeological question, “Who owns the past?” [10]

There are also ethical issues over the display of artifacts in museums which have been taken from other countries in questionable circumstances, for example the display of the Parthenon (Elgin) Marbles by the British Museum. [11] The display of objects belonging to indigenous peoples of non-European countries by European museums – particularly those taken during the European conquest of Africa – has also raised ethical questions. Pan-African activists such as Mwazulu Diyabanza and the Front Multi Culturel Anti-Spoliation (Multicultural Front Against Pillaging) have taken direct action against European museums, aiming to restitute items they believe to belong to Africa. [12] [13]

See also


  1. From Latin phrase arte factum~arsfacere to make

Related Research Articles

The Chalcolithic, a name derived from the Greek: χαλκός khalkós, "copper" and from λίθος líthos, "stone" or Copper Age, also known as the Eneolithic or Aeneolithic, is an archaeological period that researchers now regard as part of the broader Neolithic. Earlier scholars defined it as a transitional period between the Neolithic and the Bronze Age. In the context of Eastern Europe, archaeologists often prefer the term "Eneolithic" to "Chalcolithic" or other alternatives.

Archaeological excavation Exposure, processing and recording of archaeological remains

In archaeology, excavation is the exposure, processing and recording of archaeological remains. An excavation site or "dig" is the area being studied. These locations range from one to several areas at a time during a project and can be conducted over a few weeks to several years.

Experimental archaeology Archaeological sub-discipline

Experimental archaeology is a field of study which attempts to generate and test archaeological hypotheses, usually by replicating or approximating the feasibility of ancient cultures performing various tasks or feats. It employs a number of methods, techniques, analyses, and approaches, based upon archaeological source material such as ancient structures or artifacts.

In archaeology, lithic analysis is the analysis of stone tools and other chipped stone artifacts using basic scientific techniques. At its most basic level, lithic analyses involve an analysis of the artifact’s morphology, the measurement of various physical attributes, and examining other visible features.

Feature (archaeology) Term defining human-built architecture

In archaeological excavation, a feature is a collection of one or more contexts representing some human non-portable activity, such as a hearth or wall. Features serve as an indication that the area in which they are found has been interfered with in the past, usually by humans.

Denticulate tool Type of stone tool

In archaeology, a denticulate tool is a stone tool containing one or more edges that are worked into multiple notched shapes, much like the toothed edge of a saw. Such tools have been used as saws for woodworking, processing meat and hides, craft activities and for agricultural purposes. Denticulate tools were used by many different groups worldwide and have been found at a number of notable archaeological sites. They can be made from a number of different lithic materials, but a large number of denticulate tools are made from flint.

Bylany (archaeological site)

Bylany is a Danubian Neolithic archaeological site located around 65 km (40 mi) east of Prague in the Czech region of Bohemia. Excavation began in 1955 and work continues today.

Ethnoarchaeology is the ethnographic study of peoples for archaeological reasons, usually through the study of the material remains of a society. Ethnoarchaeology aids archaeologists in reconstructing ancient lifeways by studying the material and non-material traditions of modern societies. Ethnoarchaeology also aids in the understanding of the way an object was made and the purpose of what it is being used for. Archaeologists can then infer that ancient societies used the same techniques as their modern counterparts given a similar set of environmental circumstances.

Stratigraphy (archaeology) Study of archaeological sedimentation for dating purposes

Stratigraphy is a key concept to modern archaeological theory and practice. Modern excavation techniques are based on stratigraphic principles. The concept derives from the geological use of the idea that sedimentation takes place according to uniform principles. When archaeological finds are below the surface of the ground, the identification of the context of each find is vital in enabling the archaeologist to draw conclusions about the site and about the nature and date of its occupation. It is the archaeologist's role to attempt to discover what contexts exist and how they came to be created. Archaeological stratification or sequence is the dynamic superimposition of single units of stratigraphy, or contexts.

Cultural artifact Social scientific term

A cultural artifact, or cultural artefact, is a term used in the social sciences, particularly anthropology, ethnology and sociology for anything created by humans which gives information about the culture of its creator and users. Artifact is the spelling in North American English; artefact is usually preferred elsewhere.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to archaeology:

Use-wear analysis

Use-wear analysis is a method in archaeology to identify the functions of artifact tools by closely examining their working surfaces and edges. It is mainly used on stone tools, and is sometimes referred to as "traceological analysis".

In archaeology, seriation is a relative dating method in which assemblages or artifacts from numerous sites in the same culture are placed in chronological order. Where absolute dating methods, such as radio carbon, cannot be applied, archaeologists have to use relative dating methods to date archaeological finds and features. Seriation is a standard method of dating in archaeology. It can be used to date stone tools, pottery fragments, and other artifacts. In Europe, it has been used frequently to reconstruct the chronological sequence of graves in a cemetery.

Post-excavation analysis constitutes processes that are used to study archaeological materials after an excavation is completed. Since the advent of "New Archaeology" in the 1960s, the use of scientific techniques in archaeology has grown in importance. This trend is directly reflected in the increasing application of the scientific method to post-excavation analysis. The first step in post-excavation analysis should be to determine what one is trying to find out and what techniques can be used to provide answers. Techniques chosen will ultimately depend on what type of artifact(s) one wishes to study. This article outlines processes for analyzing different artifact classes and describes popular techniques used to analyze each class of artifact. Keep in mind that archaeologists frequently alter or add techniques in the process of analysis as observations can alter original research questions.

Biofact (archaeology) Found organic material of archaeological significance

In archaeology, a biofact is any organic material including flora or fauna material found at an archaeological site that has not been technologically altered by humans yet still has cultural relevance. Biofacts/ecofacts can include but are not limited to plants, seeds, pollen, animal bones, insects, fish bones and mollusks. The study of biofacts/ecofacts, alongside other archaeological remains such as artifacts are a key element to understanding how past societies interacted with their surrounding environment and with each other. Biofacts/ecofacts also play a role in helping archaeologists understand questions of subsistence and reveals information about the domestication of certain plant species and animals which demonstrates, for example, the transition from a hunter-gatherer society to a farming society.

Mumba Cave, located near the highly alkaline Lake Eyasi in Karatu District, Arusha Region, Tanzania. The cave is a rich archaeological site noted for deposits spanning the transition between the Middle Stone Age and Late Stone Age in Eastern Africa. The transitional nature of the site has been attributed to the large presence of its large assemblage of ostrich eggshell beads and more importantly, the abundance of microlith technology. Because these type artifacts were found within the site it has led archaeologists to believe that the site could provide insight into the origins of modern human behavior. The cave was originally tested by Ludwig Kohl-Larsen and his wife Margit in their 1934 to 1936 expedition. They found abundant artifacts, rock art, and burials. However, only brief descriptions of these findings were ever published. That being said, work of the Kohl-Larsens has been seen as very accomplished due to their attention to detail, especially when one considers that neither was versed in proper archaeological techniques at the time of excavation. The site has since been reexamined in an effort to reanalyze and complement the work that has already been done, but the ramifications of improper excavations of the past are still being felt today, specifically in the unreliable collection of C-14 data and confusing stratigraphy.

Gilund is a village and an archaeological site located in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan state in western India. It is one of five ancient sites excavated in the Ahar-Banas Complex which also includes the sites of Ahar, Ojiyana, Marmi, and Balathal. Out of the 111 reported sites found in the Ahar-Banas Complex, Gilund is the largest. The archaeological site was named after the present-day village, Gilund, and is locally known as Modiya Magari which means "bald habitation mound".

Franktown Cave Archaeological site in Colorado, United States

Franktown Cave is located 25 miles south of Denver, Colorado on the north edge of the Palmer Divide. It is the largest rock shelter documented on the Palmer Divide, which contains artifacts from many prehistoric cultures. Prehistoric hunter-gatherers occupied Franktown Cave intermittently for 8000 years beginning about 6400 B.C. The site held remarkable lithic and ceramic artifacts, but it is better known for its perishable artifacts, including animal hides, wood, fiber and corn. Material goods were produced for their comfort, task-simplification and religious celebration. There is evidence of the site being a campsite or dwelling as recent as AD 1725.

Minori Cave is part of the Callao limestone formation, located in Barangay Quibal, Municipality of Peñablanca, Cagayan Province in Northern Luzon. The said cave has two openings. One, designated as Mouth B, is located at 17° 43' 17" N latitude and 121° 49' 42" E longitude. The other opening, Mouth A is located 17° 43' 21" N latitude and 121° 49' 44" E longitude. The cave has an average elevation of about 200 m (656.2 ft) above sea level, and length and width of 147 m (482.3 ft) and 7 to 11 m, respectively. The cave is divided into four chambers with mouth A as chamber A and mouth B as chamber D. Chambers B and C are in between the two mouths.

This page is a glossary of archaeology, the study of the human past from material remains.


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  11. St Clair, W. (1998). Lord Elgin and the marbles (p. 140). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  12. Feiger, Leah (22 September 2020). "Colonizers Stole Africa's Art; This Man Is Taking It Back". Vice. Retrieved 8 February 2021.
  13. Haynes, Suyin (14 October 2020). "A French Court Fined Activists for Attempted Theft of a Museum Artifact. They Say It Belongs to Africans". Time. Retrieved 8 February 2021.