Material culture refers to the physical objects that are a meaningful part of a culture. It includes anything from buildings and tools to clothes and art.
It can be divided into two categories: movable and immovable. Movable objects are those that can be easily transported, such as furniture and clothing. Immovable objects are those that are fixed in place, such as houses and monuments.
Material culture is important because it helps us to understand how people lived in the past and present. By studying the objects that they used, we can learn about their customs, beliefs, and way of life.
Definitions of Material Culture
Common definitions include:
- Woodward (2007, p. 7) provides a nice simple definition where he calls material culture “objects as elements of culture”
- A more detailed definition comes from Dant (1999, p. 1) who calls material culture “things, both natural and man-made, [that] are appropriated into human culture in such a way that they re-present the social relation of culture, standing in for human beings, carrying values, ideas, and emotions”
Examples of Movable Material Culture
Books, as artifacts of a time and place, can tell us about the interests and concerns of a culture. They contain explanations of the non-material elements of a culture because they record and share knowledge.
Every culture, and even every generation, has their own approach to fashion. For example, bell-bottoms were popular in the 1970s, while skinny jeans were popular in the 2010s.
Clothing can also tell us a lot about the modesty of a culture. Today, Western beaches are full of bikinis, whereas in many Middle Eastern countries, modesty commands that women cover their bodies more while at the beach.
Just as with clothing, different cultures have different toys. For example, the Japanese love Hello Kitty, while Americans love Transformers. In the past, toys were often made of wood, whereas today, they’re generally made from plastic. In the future, this will help historians to locate the era of their archaeological digs.
Related Article: 63 Non-Material Culture Examples
In the United States, people often put up Christmas trees and hang stockings over the fireplace. Meanwhile, in Thailand, people often put up ornate paper lanterns during the Buddhist holiday of Loi Krathong.
There are periods of time when certain artistic styles become the dominant forms of art. For example, in the Renaissance era, paintings were often of religious scenes, while in the Impressionist era, paintings were often of landscapes.
One culture with unique shoes is the Dutch culture. Traditional Dutch shoes are called klompen, and they are made from wood. In the west, we call them clogs. These shoes are often crafted from a single block of wood and painted with bright colors.
Magazines are a great example of material culture because they reflect the interests of a particular culture at a particular time. For example, in the 1950s, magazines were often filled with advertisements for new appliances and cars. Today, magazines are often filled with advertisements for luxury vacations and clothes.
8. Musical Instruments
Each culture has its own musical instruments. The sitar, for example, is a popular Indian instrument made from wood and metal. The bagpipes, on the other hand, are a popular Scottish instrument made from animal intestine and wood.
9. Board Games (such as Chess)
The oldest chess set in the world is from India and it is estimated to be around 1,500 years old. This showed archaeologists that chess is a game that has been popular in many different cultures for a very long time. By tracking chess sets from digs around the world, we can map how the game spread around the world.
Different cultures have different cuisines. For example, French cuisine contains a lot of butter and cream, while Thai cuisine contains a lot of spicy chili peppers. American cuisine is often a mix of different cuisines, revealing how this culture is a mixing pot of migrants coming from many other cultures.
Different cultures have different ornaments. For example, Native Americans often have Dreamweavers in their homes. In China, people often put up red lanterns during the New Year. These ornaments can tell us a lot about cultures’ histories, values, and traditions.
Furniture trends vary by culture. In Sweeden, for example, there is a trend of using minimalist furniture in homes. By contrast, in the United States, it is often popular to have big, plush sofas and chairs in homes.
Technology is a great example of material culture because it changes so rapidly. For example, the first cell phone was released in 1983, and now there are phones that can be used to surf the web, take pictures, and even make phone calls. By studying old cell phones, historians of the future will be able to learn about the technological advances that have been made over the years.
Different cultures have different tools. The Inuit, for example, have a tool called an ulu, which is a knife that is used to cut meat and fish. The Inca, on the other hand, have a tool called a quipu, which is used to record numbers and data. By studying different cultures’ tools, we can learn a lot about their lifestyles and the ways in which they interact with their environment.
Sculptures can reveal the artworks and preferences of different cultures at points in time. For example, the terracotta army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang is a collection of sculptures that were made in China over 2,000 years ago. We can contrast the outfits of these sculptures to those of the ancient Greek sculptures to contrast various parts of the cultures – including clothing and artistic styles.
Weapons are a great example of material culture because they can show us the technological developments of cultures over time. In North America, the different styles of arrowheads at archaeological sites can show when the site was used and by which cultural group.
17. Writing and Alphabet
While knowledge is an example of non-material culture, the way in which it is recorded is material culture. For example, the Greek alphabet is a cultural artifact of the Greek culture, whereas the Latin alphabet (which the English language still uses today) is an artifact of English culture.
Souvenirs are objects kept to memorialize good times, especially special events or trips. They are typically created or purchased by tourists and represent the culture of the place they are visiting. For example, a tourist who visits Greece may buy a replica of an ancient Greek vase as a souvenir.
Archives include libraries, personal files, and government files. While archives may hold within them nonmaterial knowledge, they are the material texts that maintain that knowledge. Here, we can see an example of how nonmaterial culture can be turned into material culture.
Some cultural groups tattoo themselves as a sign of their cultural pride or identity. For example, the Maori people of New Zealand tattoo their faces with designs that demonstrate their fierce warrior history.
Coins can be seen as a type of material culture because they are used as a means of exchange in many cultures. They can be made from a variety of materials, such as gold, silver, and bronze, and they often depict the cultural values of the group that created them. For example, Roman coins often depict the image of the emperor on one side and a symbol of the Roman gods on the other.
Jewelry is often used as a way to show off the wealth and status of its owner. It can be made from a variety of materials, such as gold, silver, and bronze, and it often depicts the cultural values of the group that created it. For example, Celtic jewelry is often made from gold and silver and is decorated with intricate designs that represent the Celtic culture.
Pottery is commonly extracted during archaeological digs. It can be used to date the site and identify who used it, as different cultures have their own unique pottery styles. It can also tell us about the diet and lifestyle of a culture, as different cultures use pottery for different purposes. For example, the ancient Greeks used pottery to cook food, whereas the Inuit people of the Arctic use pottery to store food.
While it may not be pleasant to sift through, our garbage says a lot about our culture. It can show us what we deem important enough to discard and what we think is worth keeping. It can also tell us about our technological progress, as different cultures have different methods of garbage disposal. For example, the ancient Greeks simply threw their garbage on the ground, whereas modern-day societies have garbage cans, landfills, and incinerators.
Chests are commonly found on archaeological sites and they can be figurative goldmines for historians because they often preserve what is left inside. The oldest chest in the world was found in Bulgaria and it is over 7,000 years old. It is decorated with intricate carvings that depict the culture of the people who made it.
Coffins are often used to bury the dead and as a result, they can provide archaeologists with valuable information about a culture. For example, the ancient Egyptians used coffins to protect the bodies of their Pharaohs from decay. They were also decorated with hieroglyphics and other images that told the story of the Pharaoh’s life.
Cutlery is surprisingly variable across cultures. Furthermore, what the cutlery is made of is indicative of the time period of the culture (e.g. bone, wood, or metal). In the East, the most common cutlery is chopsticks, while in the West, forks and knives are more common.
Figurines are often used to represent the deities or heroes of a culture. They can be made from a variety of materials, such as stone, clay, and metal, and they often depict the cultural values of the group that created them. For example, the ancient Greeks created figurines of their gods and goddesses out of marble and bronze. These figurines were often used in religious ceremonies. Thus, figurines are examples of material culture that can often reveal insights into the culture’s religion.
Masks are often used in religious ceremonies to represent the gods or heroes of a culture. They can be made from a variety of materials, such as stone, clay, and metal, and they often depict the cultural values of the group that created them. For example, the ancient Egyptians used masks to represent their gods and goddesses. These masks were often used in religious ceremonies. Thus, like figurines, masks are examples of material culture that can often reveal insights into the culture’s religion.
30. Religious Artifacts
Religious artifacts can include items such as statues, paintings, and jewelry. They are often used to represent the deities or heroes of a culture. They can also be used in ceremonies such as weddings, funerals, and baptisms. A unique real-life example of a religious artifact is the Ark of the Covenant, which is a chest that contains the Ten Commandments.
31. Handheld Technologies
Handheld technologies will be studied for generations to come as cultural artifacts of the 21st Century. They will be able to tell future historians a lot about our culture. They will labor over why we were so obsessed with these little machines, and even dependant upon them to the extent people get anxious without them by their sides.
32. Writing Implements
Writing implements, like all technologies, have progressed over time. They can tell us a lot about the culture that created them. For example, ancient cultures often wrote on papyrus with reeds, while modern cultures often use paper and pens. This difference can tell us about the development of writing in different cultures.
Flags are used to represent the country or culture that created them. The colors and symbols on the flags have important meanings for cultures. For example, the United States flag has 13 stripes, which represent the original 13 colonies. The 50 stars on the flag represent the 50 states in the United States.
34. Boats and Canoes
Historians can look at the boats and canoes of different cultures and deduce a great deal about their naval activities. For example, the long thin boats of Vikings had their shape because they were designed to be able to sail in shallow water and beaches. This allowed them to raid coastal villages without having to worry about getting stuck.
Textiles are used in a variety of ways by different cultures. They can be used to make clothing, bedding, and other household items. Textiles can also be used to make religious objects, such as tapestries and flags. By studying the textiles in a culture’s history, we can learn about the different ways cultures produced their products as well as what crops were prevalent in their societies for the production of fabrics.
Examples of Immovable Material Culture
36. Places of Worship
As with houses, different cultures have different approaches to places of worship. Mosques, for example, are often very ornate and decorated with intricate carvings and calligraphy. Many European Catholic churches are laced with gold and amazing artworks to demonstrate the medieval Church’s wealth. Meanwhile, Protestant churches in America are often very plain and simple, with little decoration.
37. Landscaping and Gardens
The ways in which we landscape our yards can reveal things about our cultures. For example, Japanese landscaping is often very zen, with carefully placed rocks and gravel pathways. American landscaping is often much more chaotic, with large trees and flower gardens.
Monuments are constructed to memorialize things that are important to a cultural group. They can be used to commemorate important events or people in a culture’s history. As a result, they’re quintessential examples of material culture. An example of a cultural monument is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C., which commemorates the American soldiers who were killed or went missing during the Vietnam War.
Museums house a wide range of material cultural artifacts. This can include anything from paintings and sculptures to tools and furniture. By studying the objects in museums, we can learn a lot about the cultures that created them. For example, by studying the pottery in a Chinese museum, we can learn about the different styles of pottery that have been produced in China over the years.
40. Relic Boundaries
Relic boundaries are boundary lines such as walls and fences that have fallen into disuse. These boundaries can reveal the edges of ethnic groupings, cultural faultlines, and the the rise and fall of civilizations. An example of a relic boundary is the Berlin Wall which still stands as a memory of the split between communist and capitalist ideologies in Europe during the 20th Century.
41. Cave Paintings
Cave paintings are some of the oldest examples of material culture. They can be found in caves all over the world, and they typically depict scenes from the culture’s mythology or daily life. By studying cave paintings, we can learn about the beliefs and daily life of the cultures that created them. The oldest cave painting in the world is the Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc cave painting, which is around 32,000 years old.
Skyscrapers are monuments to the engineering feats of modern societies. They are some of the tallest and most impressive buildings in the world, and they serve as icons of the cultures that built them. The Burj Khalifa, which is located in Dubai, is currently the tallest building in the world.
43. Roads and Highways
Roads and highways are some of the most visible examples of material culture. They are essential to the functioning of a society, and they can be used to measure a society’s level of development. For example, the interstate highway system in the United States is a symbol of the country’s high level of development.
Bridges are another type of infrastructure that can be used to measure a society’s level of development. They are often considered to be symbols of strength and unity, and they can be used to connect different geographical regions. The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco is an example of an iconic bridge that has come to represent its city and American ingenuity.
Ruins are physical evidence of a culture’s decline. They can be used to study the causes of a culture’s downfall, and they can provide insights into the lifestyles of past cultures. The ruins of Machu Picchu in Peru are an example of an ancient ruin that is still being studied by archaeologists today.
Different cultures have different approaches to housing which can tell us things about how they live their lives. For example, the houses in downtown Amsterdam are tall and skinny; while houses in the United States are often large and spread out across sprawling suburbs.
Furthermore, each culture has their own approach to the architecture of houses. In the United States, you will see houses that look like McMansions, while in Australia you will see the quintessential red brick house or ‘Queenslander’ which is built on stilts to allow for cool air to run below the house.
The Colosseum in Rome is an example of an ancient stadium that still stands as a piece of the material culture of Ancient Rome. It memorializes the ancient and brutal Gladiator sports of the Romans. Today, stadiums are used to host sporting events and other large-scale entertainments. They are often symbols of the cultures that built them and the moment in time in which they were built – for example, many countries build new stadiums to host the Olympic Games and show off the grandeur of their culture.
The oldest pyramid in the world is the Pyramid of Djoser, which was built in 2630 BCE. Pyramids are some of the most iconic examples of ancient Egyptian and Mayan architecture, and they serve as memorials to the cultures who built them. Today, pyramids are popular tourist destinations and symbols of ancient culture.
Castles are some of the most well-known examples of medieval architecture. They were used as fortresses by the nobility in medieval Europe, and they often housed large numbers of people. Castles are popular tourist destinations today, and they are seen by archaeologists as representative of the cultures of medieval Europe.
50. Road Signs
Road signs are a type of communication technology that is used to direct traffic. They vary in design depending on the culture that created them, and they can be used to indicate the type of road that is being traveled on, the speed limit, and the direction that the driver should be going.
51. Physical Advertising
The number of physical advertisements in our cities, on our roads, and even on our trains, is a symbol of the late-capitalist culture in which we live. Even today, scholars examine these adverts to generate insights into how our culture operates and how it’s propagated through the narratives promoted in adverts.
Material vs Non-Material Culture
In cultural anthropology, material culture is contrasted to non-material culture. Whereas material culture is the physical stuff that is representative of a cultural group, non-material culture is the knowledge, ideas, ideology, memories, dances, folklore and other elements of culture that exist in abstract rather than physical forms.
Material culture is important because it helps us to understand how people lived in the past and present. By studying the objects that they used, we can learn about their customs, beliefs, and way of life. For example, the traditional dress of a region can tell us about its climate and geography, and social structure.
Material culture can also be used to track the spread of ideas and technologies. For example, the invention of the printing press can be traced by looking at the material culture of different regions.
Dant, T. (1999). Material culture in the social world. London: McGraw-Hill Education.
Woodward, I. (2007). Understanding material culture. London: Sage.
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.