Cultural Artifact

A cultural artifact, or social artifact, stands as a term extensively recognized within the realms of the social sciences—most notably anthropology, ethnology, and sociology. It designates any human-made object that yields insight into the culture of its creators and users. The ambit of this term is broad, extending to encompass objects unearthed at archaeological sites and, importantly, items from contemporary or near-contemporary societies.

When delved into from an anthropological perspective, a cultural artifact—be it a 17th-century lathe, a fragment of faience, or a modern television—serves as a prism through which the zeitgeist of its era can be discerned. Each artifact, in its essence, acts as a repository of knowledge, offering clues about the technological prowess of its time, economic structures, social hierarchies, and a myriad of other facets pertinent to understanding a culture’s intricacies.

The significance of cultural artifacts lies not only in their capacity to inform about the past but also in their power to elucidate contemporary societal norms, values, and behaviors. Unlike archaeological artifacts, which are often valued for their historical significance and physical form, cultural artifacts encompass a broader spectrum. They include objects of immediate creation, underscoring the notion that culture is a dynamic, ever-evolving construct.

Marx W. Wartofsky, a philosopher, elaborates further on this concept by categorizing artifacts into three distinct types: primary, secondary, and tertiary artifacts. Primary artifacts are those directly utilized in production or daily activities—tools such as hammers, forks, lamps, and cameras. These items are instrumental in the day-to-day lives of individuals, facilitating various tasks and functions.

Secondary artifacts, on the other hand, represent primary artifacts. These could include user manuals for cameras or diagrams of machinery—objects that, while not directly involved in production, play a crucial role in the interpretation, understanding, and utilization of primary artifacts. Through secondary artifacts, the knowledge and methods required to operate, maintain, and benefit from primary artifacts are transmitted and preserved.

Tertiary artifacts ascend to a higher level of abstraction, being representations of secondary artifacts. This category encompasses the conceptual and interpretative frameworks that underpin our understanding of both primary and secondary artifacts. Tertiary artifacts navigate the realm of ideas, theories, and models, offering a meta-level perspective on the tools and technologies that permeate human life.

Moreover, the definition of cultural artifacts extends beyond tangible objects to include virtual artifacts, which do not possess a physical form. This expansion of the term acknowledges the growing digital dimension of contemporary culture, where creations in virtual spaces can have as much impact and significance as their physical counterparts.