Interpretation for Archeologists   4. Tools For Interpreters   Distance Learning

Material Culture in Interpretation

Material culture is the tangible, physical evidence of human life. Because it is real and authentic, material culture can make abstract ideas or events more accessible and relatable to the public. It enables audiences to see for themselves what archeologists and interpreters are talking about. As a result, material culture is an important component in helping audiences to find personal connections and relevance in history. This section outlines techniques for integrating material culture into archeology interpretation.

Interdisciplinary Sources

When audiences think of archeology, they may conjure images of artifacts and sites. Archeologists, however, use all kinds of material culture to conduct background research and present their findings. These objects can be used in interpretive products. For example, maps and photographs show an audience how a place looked to the people who lived there. An estate inventory in conjunction with artifacts and museum collections illustrates a historical figure's social standing. Animal bones and seeds evidence a community’s food traditions, diet, and nutrition. Museum objects fill in partial table settings found archeologically to show the scope of foods, courses, and practices. Interdisciplinary sources are themselves material culture, but they help to place archeological artifacts into context.

Case Study

The Robinson House: A Portrait of African American Heritage
Explore the online feature about the Robinson family, which uses a range of sources to set the scene and tell the story of one family's experience at Manassas.

Replicas and 3D Printing

Replicas are modern copies of archeological artifacts, typically using similar materials and construction to their historical counterparts. They are available through specialized catalogs or through artisans of traditional crafts.

3D printing uses data from laser scans of objects to "print" shapes in a special plastic. The "prints" can be painted to look like the original. Some materials, such as bone or ceramic, reproduce better than others, like glass. The data sets can be shared. 3D printers are increasingly available at libraries, schools, makers spaces, and print shops for free or a small fee.

The benefit of using replicas and 3D prints is that the objects are replaceable, unlike authentic archeological resources. They can be passed around a group during a ranger talk, used by students during an educational program, or put on display for a public activity. If one is lost or broken, it can be replaced without compromising the integrity of a collection.

Case Study

The NPS works with a private company to scan the USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor and create 3D models of the sunken ship and its artifacts. 3D scanning results in objects that visitors can hold, such as soda bottles or cooking pots, that speak to the human presence and loss of life during the attack. War War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which manages the USS Arizona and other submerged resources at Pearl Harbor, will also use the scans to document the condition of the ship.

Exhibits, In-Person or Online

In-person and online exhibits of archeology share similar components. In them, artifacts are situated in frames to tell a larger story about people in the past. They involve a combination of images, objects, and text. Usually, the artifacts are protected and cannot be picked up. Exhibits may include multimedia components, such as video or a microscope. They may also include replicas or 3D prints, a station to touch objects, or an area to try using objects.

Whether an exhibit is online or in-person, make sure that artifacts are presented with as much cultural context as possible. Exhibit cases lined with poorly or unlabeled artifacts cannot convey any depth of information about how and why past people made, used, and discarded the artifacts. For example, exhibit designers may lay out a combination of museum objects and archeological artifacts on the floor of an exhibit case, then mount an environmental scene on the case walls.

Case Study

Compare these images of exhibits about the Hopewell people from the archives of the National Museum of Natural History. How do they use material culture? How do they - or do they - place the artifacts into cultural context?

Experimental Archeology

Experimental archeology aims to recreate and test the techniques used by people in the past to make things and conduct activities. It aims to answer how and why people in the past carried out tasks in the ways shown in the archeological record. Experimental archeology is particularly useful when parts of an assemblage are missing or incomplete, or when a technique of construction or use has been lost. It helps people today to understand past technologies, human body mechanics, uses of ecosystem resources, and more. An interpretive technique is to take audiences through the process of engineering an object through trial, error, and testing.

Case Study

At Tonto National Monument, an experimental archeologist demonstrated making arrows, using yucca fibers for textiles, attaching turquoise into mosaic jewelry, and making shell ornaments. These elaborate items are recreated from original artifacts found in the area. Many examples are on display at the Monument's Visitor Center.

Established as a national monument in 1907 by President Teddy Roosevelt, the cliff dwellings were part of the early archeological preservation movement in America. Tonto National Monument protects two cliff dwellings built by the Salado people over 700 years ago.

For Your Information

NPS Museum Management Handbook, Part III: Museum Collection Use
Read guidance about access and use of museum collections, including how to evaluate and document museum collections use; legal issues, publications; 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional reproductions; other uses of museum collections; using museum collections in exhibits; and furnished historic structures; and other related issues.

Managing Archeological Collections
This distance learning guide addresses the activities dealing with all kinds of archeological collections (i.e., objects, records, reports, and digital data) in all kinds of places (i.e., the field, the archeologist's office, the lab, and the repository.)

MJB/EJL