What is an Artifact in Archaeology

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An "artifact" (or "artefact") is any object, small or large, created, shaped or "selected" by human hands. The object may be complete, broken or a fragment of a whole object. An artifact is valuable to an archeaologist, a paleontologist, an anthropologist or a historian. Even the general public may find an artifact by chance. Artifacts can be the vital clues to ancient resources, technologies, patterns of trade, social strata, lifestyles and belief systems. Coins, in particular, are useful for dating and connecting ancient rulers with popular images of them.

Artifacts may be in a range of forms. To use the 1961 excavation findings at Catal Huyuk in Turkey as an example, domestic objects were found in homes and tombs. This was a mound (or "tell" or "huyuk"), about 320 kilometres south of Turkey's capital Ankara. The majority of the artifacts were carved in wood or bone or clay. Little bone spatulas, in the form of a fork, were used by women to apply make-up. Wooden objects included large dishes with handles, plates and bowls. Food was cooked in tall, clay, double-handled pots. "Pot boilers" or hot stones (deliberately chosen for the purpose, so they qualify as artifacts), were dropped into the pots to cook food so that the earthenware did not crack under direct heat. A skeleton was found with cowrie shells (considered "found" artifacts also) from The Red Sea in its eye sockets. This "symbolic" burial suggests the person may have been a trader.

The Catal Huyuk discovery was important because the artifacts showed an advanced, Neololithic or Late Stone Age civilization, adept in skills, with burial rituals and beliefs, surviving 2,000 years earlier than the city states in Egypt and Mesopotamia which began about 4 to 3,000B.C. They showed that even though the society was not heavily metal based nor owned a writing script, it was advanced. The artifacts told a story that suggested the history books needed to reconsider when civilization, on a large scale, really began.

The reason why archaeologists and other "past experts" value artifacts is that they represent the tangible history of the past. They represent "clues" to dating civilizations, eras, migration and trade routes, technological skills, art styles and cultures (especially burial practices). Pottery from ancient Egypt that appears similar in style to pottery found on the island of Crete from the Minoan "palace" era, may suggest there was some trading link between Egypt and Crete in about 3 to 2,000B.C. The historian will use the archaeologist's findings and research further connections. A paleontologist may use the findings to support a time frame for dating fossils. An anthropologist may use the findings to support study of ancient cultures and lifestyles.

An archaeologist seeks artifacts in "digs". These digs may be in open plain areas, forests, ocean depths or coastlines (Australia has a prized area known as "The Shipwreck Coast") or, the more difficult ones, modern urban areas. Some well-known digs include around the pyramids of Giza, the "layering" of cities at Jericho, and the preserved areas in the ashes from ancient volcanic eruptions in Pompeii and Herculaneum in Asia Minor. Large areas of Britain are the hive of digs, particularly in search of artifacts related to the ancient inhabitants of Britain, such as the Vikings, Romans, Celts and Anglo-Saxons. Ongoing areas of interest include Anatolia in Turkey, but government restrictions in the country make archaeological work difficult. In Australia, digs for Aboriginal artifacts cannot be undertaken without the acknowledgment or involvement of the Aboriginal people. Their burial sites are protected and cannot be disturbed.

The two main tools for finding artefacts include picks and metal detectors. Picks are used to gently ease away soil to reveal buried objects. Metal detectors are used to find any buried metal based objects, from flints for axes to the gold or silver in jewellery.

The prime dating method for artifacts is known as Carbon-14 dating. Other "X-ray type" technologies are now being used as well, but Carbon-14 has been the stable method since W. F. Libby pioneered it at the University of Chicago in the 1950's, subsequently winning the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960. In simple terms, Carbon-14 is the radioactive element in an object used to measure age.

The work of the archaeologist is paramount as evidence for other history based disciplines. Artefacts are the backbone, the tangible proof, the evidence of historical theory, evaluation and speculation. Artefacts give insights into past civilisations, their skills, lifestyles, cultures and beliefs.

Catal Huyuk details "Vanished Civilsations"- Reader's Digest. 1983.

More about this author: Gemma Wiseman

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