Analyze Artifacts

Enrich your ethnographic interpretation by accounting for community artifacts.

Archeology is the study of past civilizations based upon artifacts, physical objects that are characteristic of a particular culture. We are all familiar with the Egyptian tombs and Roman ruins. These artifacts provide a great deal of information about ancient civilizations and help to recreate a picture of what life was like for these people.

Identify Artifacts Important to the Group

Anthropology also uses artifacts in order to describe a culture and its people. However, if we are researching a culture that we are able to observe, we are able not only to interpret the importance of an artifact, but also we are able to see how individuals interact with it. And so, even if you are not an archaeologist or an anthropologist, as long as you intend to study a particular culture you will want to identify objects that seem to be of daily importance to the group.

Asking the following questions can help you select which artifacts to study:

  1. What household or domestic objects seem necessary for the daily functioning of the culture?
  2. What are the religious or ritual artifacts that all of the members are likely to identify?
  3. How does the careful treatment of certain objects reflect the group’s value system?
  4. What machines or technologies seem to be changing the way the culture operates?
  5. What objects are frequently used for labor? for cooking? for entertainment?

Examine All Artifacts of a Culture

The most important question to ask concerning artifacts is: “What does it tell about the culture?” The ethnographer should be careful when answering this question because a culture includes a multitude of artifacts, and while you focus on the most important ones, be aware that no one single object is likely to obtain an absolutely central importance.

Below is another excerpt from Geertz’s study. Notice how the importance of cockfighting causes the Balinese men to treat their roosters with such great concern. Because they focus so much attention on these animals, it is apparent that cockfighting is very important to the culture. As you read Geertz’s description of the cocks as artifacts, ask yourself, “What do they tell us about Balinese culture?”

In the houseyard, the high-walled enclosures where people live, fighting cocks are kept in wicker cages, moved frequently about so as to maintain an optimum balance of sun and shade. They are fed a special diet, which varies according to individual theories but which is mostly maize, sifted for impurities with far more care than it is when mere humans are going to eat it and offered to the animal kernal by kernal. Red pepper is stuffed down their beaks and up their anuses to give them spirit. They are bathed in the same ceremonial preparation of tepid water, medicinal herbs, flowers, and onions in which infants are bathed, and for a prized cock just about as often. Their combs are cropped, their plumage dressed, their spurs trimmed, their legs messaged, and they are inspected for flaws with the squinted concentration of a diamond merchant. A man who has a passion for cocks, an enthusiast in the literal sense of the term, can spend most of his life with them, and even those, the overwhelming majority, whose passion though intense has not entirely run away with them can and do spend what seems not only to an outsider, but also to themselves, an inordinate amount of time with them. “I am cock crazy,” my landlord, a quite ordinary aficionado by Balinese standards, used to moan as he went to move another cage, give another a bath, or conduct another feeling. “We’re all cock crazy.”