Artifacts are objects made, crafted, or shaped by humans such as tools, weapons, and pottery.
The term is most commonly used in archaeology where old human artifacts from years past are retrieved during archaeological digs.
Artifacts are distinct from ‘ecofacts’ and ‘features’, which are both also terms to refer to things revealed through archaeological endeavors:
|Artifact||Meaningful objects crafted by humans extracted during an archaeological dig||Tools, pottery, metal objects, weapons, jewelry, books, instruments, figurines, coins.|
|Ecofact||Meaningful organic matter extracted during an archaeological dig||Bones, wheat seeds, teeth, antlers, DNA preserved in sap.|
|Feature||Immovable contextual features that represent human activity found during an archaeological dig||Hearths, remains of a wall, remains of a well, remains of a campfire, Middens (Trash Deposits), trees with markings.|
Examples of Artifacts in Archeology
In 1960, archaeologists extracted the oldest known piece of armor from a dig site in Greece named Dendra.
This armor is estimated to be from the 15th Century BCE, making it around 3500 years old. It was made of beaten bronze and was full body armor consisting of 15 pieces held together by leather straps. It is called the Dendra panoply.
Artworks that form artifacts are often not simply painted canvases, but artworks that are found etched into other artifacts.
Examples include artworks on pottery, swords, shields, and coins. Artworks may also be identified on features, such as etched into trees and caves.
Examples of some of the oldest artworks identified on artifacts include the Venus of Berekhat Ram, estimated to be older than bother Neanderthals and Homo sapiens and possibly made by Homo erectus, which was found in the Golan Heights in 1981. Similarly, the Venus of Tan-Tan, discovered in Morocco, may be as much as 500,000 years old.
3. Books and Texts
Egyptologists believe that the oldest illustrated book is the Book of Two Ways. The book is believed to be about 4,000 years old.
It was a set of texts found etched on the inside of a sarcophagus (Egyptian stone coffin). The Book of Two Ways is believed to be at least 40 years older than any other written text.
The rosetta stone is another famous text which was produced during the Hellenic period (about 196BC). The text is famous because it helped provide the code for deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. The stone has the same text written in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script, and Greek script, allowing archaeologists to reverse-engineer hieroglyphics by comparing it to the Demotic and Greek scripts.
The oldest known chest is the Mästermyr chest, found in Gotland, an island of Sweeden. The chest is a Viking age object dated somewhere between 793 and 1066 CE.
It was found in 1936 by a farmer who was tending to an area of field that was formerly a lake. This is one of the exciting situations where an artifact was found by a layperson and not during an excavation.
The chest had a treasure trove of objects inside including keys, padlocks, hammers, chisels, knives, saw blades, and clamps.
5. Coffins and Sacophagi
While the Ancient Egyptians are well-known for their sarcophagi, coffins were actually identified first in China.
The oldest known wooden coffin dates back to about 5000 BCE from the Beishouling relic site in Shaanxi, China. It is believed to belong to a 4-year-old girl.
The Ancient Egyptians do, however, hold the crown for the most elaborate coffins. Their sarcophagi (the earliest of which are dated to around 2685 BCE) were made of elaborate stone and contained beautiful carvings and writing on them. Looking at them today, it’s remarkable just how small the Ancient Egyptians were.
Coins provide evidence of commerce and trade in ancient civilizations. They became widespread in Ancient Greece whose complex civilization included coin-based trade and marketplaces.
However, the oldest known coin is the Lydian Lion which is from the ancient Kingdom of Lydia. This is a kingdom that existed in 1200–546 BCE in modern-day Turkey. The coin contains an etching of a lion on it.
Most historians believe that coins became common in this kingdom during the reign of King Alyattes, dating them to about 610 – 550 BCE.
The oldest known Roman coin is the silver denarius Roman Republic coin which is dated to about 210 BCE. It was found in 2000 at Hallaton, Leics during an archaeological dig.
Coins can also be considered examples of cultural artifacts because they are generally linked to specific cultural groups and the images on them may reveal information about those cultures.
The oldest known spoons are a set of mammoth ivory spoons found in Avdeevo Russia. They’re an incredible 21,000 years old and made from an animal that is extinct!
Chopsticks are also ancient, with the oldest being a set of six excavated from the Ruins of Yin in China. They are dated to 1200 BCE.
Similarly, there are ancient knives, such as the Ancient Egyptian Gebel el-Arak Knife made from Elephant ivory which dates to 3450 BC. However, it’s not clear whether when old knives were used as tools for hunting versus as cutlery.
The oldest known figurine is the Venus of Willendorf, found in modern-day Austria. This is a figurine of a naked big breasted woman that stands 11 centimeters tall (4.4 inches).
The Venus of Willendorf is believed to be about 25,000 years old. It was discovered in 1908 during an archaeological dig in Lower Austria.
One theory about this figurine, and others like it, is that they are self-portraits produced by women of the era.
9. Games and Toys
The oldest known chess set is an excellent example of a game artifact. It is believed to date to about 700-712 CE and was found in modern-day Uzbekistan in 1977.
This chess set is known as the Afrasiab Chessmen. It contained 7 pieces and was dated to around 700 CE because a coin of that date was also found on the same layer as the chess set.
The same excavation site revealed several other chess sets as well.
Other ancient board games often found during excavations include checkers and backgammon.
Jewelry is regularly extracted during archaeological digs. It can be made from a range of items, but commonly ivory, wood, bones, and shells.
The oldest known jewelry is dated to about 145,000 BCE. This particular item, discovered in the Bizmoune Cave in Morocco, consists of 33 shells that were designed to be threaded through a string. They’re believed to be either a necklace or earrings.
This item may in fact be classified as an ecofact because it’s made from shells, an organic material.
Jewelry is also commonly found in Mayan, Ancient Egyptian, and Native American excavations. The oldest Native American jewelry is four bone earrings which were found at the Mead Site near Fairbanks, Alaska. These earrings are believed to date to about 10,000 BCE.
Locks and keys date back about 6000 years. The oldest known key was found in the ruins of Nineveh located in Mosul (Iraq).
The lock and key from Nineveh is a wooden pin lock that is a rudimentary but remarkably similar lock to the type we use to open house and car doors today. The key’s teeth would fit into a lock to lift pins the perfect amount to allow the lock to turn.
While paleolithic cave drawings depicting people wearing masks date back 35,000 years, the oldest known mask dates to 9,000 years ago.
It is believed that most older masks, made of wood, are well and truly decomposed.
The oldest known masks are held in museums in Israel and Paris. These masks, found near Jerusalem, contain an array of facial features and expressions designed to mimic skills and human faces.
The masks may have had any number of uses, given the fact they’ve been used to scare enemies at war as well as for rituals and even parties.
13. Musical Instruments
Most of the oldest known musical instruments are flutes. Currently, the oldest known instruments are bone and ivory flutes from the Upper Paleolithic era (late stone age).
Three flutes, two bone flutes from the bones of mute swans and one mammoth ivory flute, were found in Geisenklösterle, a cave archaeological site in southern Germany. These flutes are dated to about 42,000 years ago.
Being made of bone, these artifacts are also technically biofacts, meeting the definition of both terms.
The oldest playable trumpets are Tutankhamun’s trumpets which were found in his burial chamber in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. They’re dated to 1323 BCE. These trumpets are made of sterling silver and bronze.
Tutankhamun’s trumpets are said to have magical powers. Every time they have been played since their discovery, a war has broken out one week later.
Pottery is one of the most common examples of artifacts found in archaeological digs. It is found throughout ancient sites from most cultural groups, from Asia to Europe to the Americas.
Interestingly, Aboriginal Australians worked with clay but did not make pots. The assumption is that this is because Aboriginal Australians were semi-nomadic, negating the need for long-term storage containers.
The oldest example of pottery was found in the Xianrendong cave in South China in the 1960s. This pottery dates to about 20,000 years ago and was used in a time of semi-nomadism in the region, disputing the hypothesis that pottery emerged when humans left nomadic lifestyles and began farming (which took place about 10,000 years ago).
A wide range of artifacts are classified as tools including saws, hammers, axes, knives, chisels, and anvils.
Uniquely, tools are not only crafted by humans but also by our cousins such as chimpanzees. They also pre-date the Homo species, with rudimentary tools such as sharpened rocks found that were used by our ancestors.
The oldest known tools date back 3.3 million years and were used by an ancestral species called Australopithecus afarensis.
The oldest tools used by the Homo species are called the Oldowan tools, which were sharpened rocks, which date to about 1.76 million years ago.
The ability of the Homo species to create tools out of stones is the distinguishing feature of the stone age, which was superseded by the Bronze age.
The oldest object that we can consider a child’s toy, as opposed to a musical instrument, is likely a ceramic rattle dated to 2,000 BCE.
It contained rattles inside it that make it a lot like a child’s rattle of the modern era.
The toy was found in Central Anatolia, Turkey, at a site that was once the capital city of the Kingdom of Kanesh.
However, some archaeologists date another item, a stone doll head, as the oldest toy. It is dated to around about the same era as the rattle but was found on the island of Pantelleria, Italy.
Archaeologists believe that the doll head was used as a toy (rather than a decorative figurine) because there was no clear religious or ceremonial context involved. It was also found alongside miniature kitchenware, which gave the impression that it could have been a girl’s toy much like gendered toys of the 20th Century.
Weapons for both hunting and war are considered artifacts. It is very common for arrowheads, for example, to be found throughout North America during digs.
Some of the oldest weapons to be uncovered are the nine wooden spears found near Schoningen, Northern Germany. The spears are about 300,000 years old, pre-dating the Homo sapiens (but not Homo erectus). It is believed these spears were used by Neanderthals.
The oldest surviving weapons in North America are believed to be between 20,000 and 16,000 years ago. These were spearheads found in the Gault site in central Texas.
Artifacts are excellent primary sources that can help reveal contextual information about a cultural group.
But the important thing about identifying examples of artifacts is to make sure you can distinguish them from features and biofacts.
Artifacts are objects crafted by humans, whereas biofacts are notable organic matter found in digs. Notably, some artifacts may also be considered biofacts due to overlapping definitions (e.g. bone flutes).
Features, on the other hand, are immovable contextual features that represent human activity found during an archaeological dig, such as hearths and remains of walls.
Common artifact examples are tools, weapons, pottery, and jewelry.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.