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A Study of Material Culture: Analyzing Artifacts

In this activity, students will learn to read information from objects in the manner of history curators and researchers. The students will analyze the objects by examining physical characteristics and collecting secondary information.


  • one artifact per student or group of students (students may bring objects from home, or teachers may supply reproduction artifacts from a time period or place under study)
  • copies of Artifact Identification form 
  • rulers, measuring tapes, calipers, or scale 
  • colored pencils or instant or digital camera


1. Read and discuss the article "Reading History from Quilts."

2. Distribute the artifacts and copies of the Artifact Identification form. Ask the students to answer the questions in Part 1 on the form using only the objects themselves.

3. Have the students research the artifacts using associated documents such as sales receipts and owner’s manuals, along with encyclopedias, reference books, and the Internet. Have them use this research to answer the remaining questions on the form and to add details to their other answers.

4. Have the students document their artifacts by drawing or photographing them (several views if needed).

5. Discuss the process of “reading artifacts." How is it similar to scientific study?