Artifacts: What Keeps the Archaeology World Spinning

What is an artifact? Literally anything made by human hands: an arrowhead to a rusted out tin can. Without artifacts, there really wouldn’t be much for archaeologists to do. No beautiful projectile points to drool over, nothing to painstakingly record. And, perhaps most frightening, no Indiana Jones to steal golden statues from temples and wrench dangerous artifacts away from Nazis. And what would archaeology be without Indiana Jones, eh? When I’ve described the actual definition of an artifact to the public, I get completely different reactions depending on whether my audience consists of children or adults.

Kids really get a kick out of being told that anything made by human hands is an artifact—a pencil, a table, a plate! I had one young boy ask me, seriously, if his poop was an artifact, since he made it; after trying really hard not to laugh, I told him, that since his hands didn’t make it, that no, poop isn’t an artifact. Aren’t kids great? Adults, on the other hand, focus more on the necessary age something has to be to be considered an artifact. In the U.S., something—a tin can or pottery fragment—has to be at least 50 years old. That gets a few guffaws about how some of them could be considered an ‘artifact’ (although, not technically). I did send my dad the application National Register for Historic Places when he turned 50, quite the gag gift for a history buff.

*Please note: it is ILLEGAL to take artifacts from archaeological sites located on public lands (i.e. NPS, BLM, State Park, etc.). So, let’s say you’re walking along a lovely trail at a National Park and you see the coolest arrowhead or the most beautiful piece of ancient pottery. Is it okay to look at? Yes. Is it okay to take a picture of it? Yes. Is it okay to put it in your pocket and weasel away with that artifact? NO! Always—ALWAYS—put artifacts back where you found them.

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