Guidelines to Researching...
Material Culture in Antigonish

"Because the artifact reflects the values and influences which were important to the individual who made it and the society and time in which it was manufactured, it can be viewed as making an important cultural and historical statement. Both oral and written history may reflect judgments that are inaccurate and biased; the artifact does not lie." Dorothy Duncan, The Artifact: What Can it Tell us about the Past? 1981

The artifact presents both custodial and interpretive challenges for the material historian. The process of first-hand inspection, identification and analysis calls for creativity and visual literacy. The questions and guidelines listed below should serve as signposts helping the researcher assess an artifact's non-verbal clues and elicit meaningful information. The following guidelines for evaluation and analysis are adapted from Dorothy Duncan's The Artifact: What Can it Tell us about the Past? 1981 (reprinted 1990).


  1. What is the object made of? Is it made of glass, wood, metal, ceramic, or natural fibre? Are these substances available locally?
  2. What size is the object?
  3. Is it light or heavy and does its weight serve a purpose?
  4. Does it stand independently or is it part of something else?
  5. Is it handmade or machine-made?
  6. Does it have the natural patina of age? Is it painted or varnished?
  7. Is there a pattern or design on the object? Are the decorative designs pictorial views or geometric, floral or animal motifs? How has this decoration been applied?
  8. Does the artifact show signs of wear and tear and/or repair? Are there saw marks, pontel marks or finger marks?
  9. Where might the object have been made? Are there any identifying names, labels or symbols? Are these carved, painted or impressed? Do these marks identify maker, manufacturer, place of origin and/or place of sale?
  10. Can you identify the function and purpose of the artifact? Was it ornamental or utilitarian?


  1. When and how was the object made?
  2. How does it compare with other similar artifacts?
  3. What function does it serve and has this function changed over time?
  4. What did it cost when new? Was it expensive when it was made? How did this cost relate to the prices of other items at the time?
  5. Who owned this artifact and why? What was the original owner's social and cultural background?
  6. Was it a necessity or a luxury?
  7. What was the meaning of the object and how did people react and relate to it?
  8. Is the object pleasant to the touch and the eye?
  9. What does the construction and form reveal about the level of craftsmanship? Is it sophisticated or rustic in its execution and design?
  10. What does the artifact reveal about the community that made and used it?
  11. What does it reveal about the person who used or collected it?

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