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What is material culture?

[photo] These Hopi basket weavers produce material culture to cope with their environment. (Herbert T. Crowling Collection, Harpers Ferry Center)

These Hopi basket weavers produce material culture to cope with their environment.

Material culture is not culture, but its product. Culture is socially transmitted rules for behavior, ways of thinking about and doing things. Culture—whether it is language, religion, or law—is learned and reflected in the way we shape our physical world. Material culture is usually considered to be roughly synonymous with artifacts (objects used by humans to cope with the physical world, to facilitate social interaction, and to benefit state of mind) and ecofacts (nonartifactual natural remains that provide information about human behavior, such as remnants of wild and domesticated animals and plants). Material culture may be more broadly defined as that sector of our physical environment that we modify through culturally determined behavior. The physical environment includes more than artifacts. James Deetz writes:

We can also consider cuts of meat as material culture, since there are many ways to dress an animal; plowed fields; even the horse that pulls the plow, since scientific breeding of livestock involves the conscious modification of an animal's form according to culturally derived ideals. Our body itself is a part of our physical environment, so that such things as parades, dancing, and all aspects of kinesics—human motion—fit within our definition . . . (Deetz 1996:35-36).

This definition of material culture forces us to look at archeological information in the broader framework of whole material cultural systems, which may permit sharper delineation of their corresponding cultural systems (Deetz 1996:36). Artifacts, remains of structures, artwork, historical documents, landscapes, and ephemeral social practices such as dancing and religion are all aspects of material culture produced by countless individuals who shaped past events. Although those individuals are long gone, their achievements and failures have lived on to shape our present world (Ashmore and Sharer 1996:14).

Archeologists' work only begins with research and surveying a site. Through analysis archeologists search for meanings in the recovered artifacts to answer research questions. What do the artifacts reveal about social structure? Do the artifacts indicate which people may have used them and for what purposes? What do the artifacts reveal about how resources were obtained and used? Do artifacts indicate associations with religious or spiritual practices? How do artifacts relate to each other, physically and ideologically? Through such questions archeologists attempt to interpret what the artifacts meant to their original users.

[photo] Chamber pot

Artifacts have meaning when placed in social context. This chamber pot from Fort McHenry NM exemplifies a container used by people living at the Fort before plumbing for indoor bathrooms was installed in the 1890s. (NPS)

Many archeological presentations display artifacts without giving them meaning. Exhibit cases lined with poorly or unlabeled artifacts cannot convey any depth of information about how past people made, used, and discarded the artifacts. Similarly, an interpretive program that fails to present an artifact's social context—that is, to interpret its technical production and use, its value to the people who used it, and perhaps how and if the artifact symbolized those peoples' ideology—only presents the minimal amount of information to the public without eliciting intellectual and emotional responses.

Public interpretations that include archeology are most successful in making these emotional and intellectual connections between visitors and resources if they convey the broad context within which archeologists construct their understandings of the past. Interpretations that use artifacts from the past as a bridge to the present will better engage the visitor in historical and contemporary issues.

Archeologists and interpreters can work together to go beyond mere description when interpreting archeological resources for the public. Consider questions such as:

Case studies

Archeology at Andersonville
This web site highlights how archeology addresses questions about Civil War prisoner of war camps, exploring how the issue of fair and ethical treatment of POWs continues to be an issue around the world today.

Cultural Continuity at the Nash Site: African-American Households from Manassas National Battlefield Park
This web site presents possible meanings of quartz artifacts recovered from the Nash site in what is now Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia.

TSM/MJB