Why these paper clips have gained such widespread popularity is a functional mystery but a fine example of the role aesthetics and style can play in the evolution of artifacts. --Henry Petroski (The Evolution of Useful Things, 1992)
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A resourceful convict braided dental floss into a makeshift rope and used it [to] scale an 18-foot jailhouse wall and escape. --Nancy Nussbaum (1994)
It [the Spalding Allen collection of Nez Perce shirts, hats, and other objects collected in the 1840s] definitely has historical and cultural value to our children, their children and their grandchildren. These artifacts should be located here in Nez Perce country [i.e., in Idaho rather than in Ohio]. --Allen Slickpoo Sr., Nez Perce tribal historian (Kenworthy 1995:A3)
Usage: Like gestures, artifacts have a great deal to "say." The simplest message transmitted by an artifact is, "Something manmade is here" (Givens 1982:172). "Manmade" (i.e., intelligently fabricated by humans) is evident in a. the deliberately patterned shape, b. the grammaticalsyntax (i.e., the structured arrangement of parts), and c. the negative entropy encoded in artifacts as material signs, signals, and cues.
Word origin. The word artifact comes from the Latin arte ("by skill") factum ("made"; via the ancient Indo-European root dhe-, "to set," "to put," derivatives of which include deed, did, and do; skill "by hand" is implied).
Anthropology. "At dozens of archaeological sites in Africa, razor-sharp stone flakes and round hammer-stones mark the handiwork of anonymous craftspeople who forged tools as early as 2.6 million years ago" (Gibbons 1997:32).
Lego. European and U.S. children express themselves nonverbally through the whimsical artifacts they build with Lego bricks (made of the plastic, acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). In Latin, Lego means "I put together" (Hoffman 1996). The number of artifacts that may be fabricated from Lego's 1,700 differently shaped bricks is inestimable (as is the number of sentences that may be fabricated from the vocabulary of words).
Tinkertoy. A second multi-part construction toy (see above, Lego) is the Tinkertoy, created in the U.S. in the 1920s. This "meta-artifact" (i.e., an artifact from which other artifacts may be made) was invented by stone mason Charles Pajeau, who ". . . noticed how much fun his own children had sticking pencils into empty spools of thread, then haphazardly assembling them into all sorts of abstract forms" (Hoffman 1996:91; see HANDS, Later signs). Lockheed has used Tinkertoy's nonverbal components to test airplane artifacts, including fuselage and wing designs.
RESEARCH REPORTS: 1. By the age of five, the typical American child has owned 250 artifacts (i.e., toys; Rosemond 1992). 2. The Tasmanian islanders (who lived off the southeastern coast of Australia) are known to anthropologists as the people who made and used theleast number of artifacts of any cultural group in history. In all, the Tasmanian islanders used a total of ca. 25 stone and wooden tools, fiber baskets, shell necklaces, ropes, and bark canoes (Diamond1993). 3. And yet, the contrast between U.S. consumers, e.g., and Tasmanians is not marked, because the total time spent handling, repairing, exchanging, and communicating with and about artifacts may be roughly the same everywhere (see OBJECT FANCY). (N.B.: A case in point is Tibet, where material goods are scarce--and yet where monks nonetheless spend hours each day spinning cylindrical prayer wheels.)
Hand-held. Archaeologists define artifacts as portable objects (e.g., beads, arrowheads, and car keys) which are small enough to carry. In a lifetime, we handle millions of artifacts which "speak" to us through their colors, textures, aromas, and sounds (see MESSAGING FEATURE). (N.B.: The Smithsonian Institution is home to ca. 140 million "objects" [Bliss 1994:3], all of which--including insects, meterorites, and tropical plants--may be classed as artifacts because they have undergone S.I.'s preservation, stabilization, and/or mounting process.)
Monumental. Pyramids, interstate highways, and the Great Wall of China are immoveable artifacts, too heavy for Homo to carry. Most monumental artifacts were made after humans had stopped hunting, gathering, and wandering (ca. 10,000 years ago), and had settled down as farmers. (N.B.: Today, the typical 2,000-square-foot U.S. home weighs an average 340,000 lbs., and "speaks" to us through messaging features designed, e.g., into its arches, shutters, and eaves.)
Emotional. When asked to identify our most treasured possession, we often name an artifact given to us by an older family member (Sutton and Waite 1992).
Neuro-notes I. 1. "Areas and pathways subserving object and spatial vision are segregated in the visual system. Experiments show that the primate prefrontal cortex is similarly segregated into object and spatial domains. . . . . These findings indicate that the prefrontal cortex contains separate processing mechanisms for remembering 'what' and 'where' an object is" (Wilson et al. [Science] 1993:1955). 2. "When an object is seen or its name read, knowledge of [its] attributes is activated automatically and without conscious awareness" (Martin et al. [Science] 1995:102; see WORD, Neuro-notes III). 3. "The visual system separates processing of an object's form and color ('what') from its spatial location ('where'). In order to direct action to objects, the identity and location of those objects . . ." may be integrated with help from neurons in the primate brain's prefrontal cortex (Rao, Rainier, and Miller [Science] 1997:821).
Neuro-notes II. According to PET imaging studies, artifact picture identification activates the left brain hemisphere (specifically, the dorsolateral frontal and temporal cortex [Perani et al. 1999].) (Animal picture identification, on the other hand, activates both the right and left occipital regions [Perani et al. 1999]).
Neuro-notes III. "When we create an artifact such as a tool, we leave a physical trace of our thoughts" (Hauser 2000:22).
See also NONVERBAL LEARNING.
Illustration of African Oldowan chopping tool, ca. 1.9 million years old (a material object deliberately fabricated by humankind; picture credit: unknown)