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Primary Sources: Objects and Artifacts

Find and use primary sources in your research.

Need Help Getting Started?

Ask a librarian for help.  Contact your subject specialist to find out about useful reference sources, guides to the literature, and databases on your topic. 

Material Culture

When you are researching objects and artifacts, you are considering the material culture of your subject.  Material culture consists of the physical objects, such as tools, domestic articles, or religious objects, which give evidence of the type of culture developed by a society or group.  (Source:  Oxford English Dictionary, OED Online, 2009)

To find books in BobCat, search on the term "material culture" in the Subject index. The search will turn up overview volumes about the field of material culture and volumes on the study of the material culture of particular people and places.  Use the facets at the left of the screen to narrow search results and follow the subject links in promising titles to find additional materials on your topic.

Objects & Artifacts

Webster's dictionary defines an artifact as something created by humans, usually for a practical purpose, and especially as an object remaining from a particular period. 

When you use artifacts as primary sources, you've added material culture to your research.  Artifacts can be an important complement to text-based primary sources because they provide a concrete, tangible dimension to your evidence.

An artifact remains almost meaningless, however, when taken out of context.  When working with artifacts, you should ask the same types of questions as you would ask when working with other types of primary sources, such as who created the object, did s/he have a particular viewpoint or objective, etc.  In addition to telling you something about its creator, an artifact provides insight into the customs, preferences, styles, special occasions, work, and play, of the culture in which it was created.

Working With Artifacts

Example:   In the images below, you can trace the depiction of lovers in artifacts from different cultures and time periods.

Sample Questions:  Can we draw conclusions about notions of intimacy, sexuality and gender roles from the artifacts?  How representative are these artifacts of their cultures?  What comparisons can you make between these cultures? 

Formulating Answers:  First, study the artifact by itself.  Try to be as comprehensive as possible in describing what you see in front of you.  Second, examine the studies other researchers have made of the artifact and you test their interpretations against the views you have formed.   And finally, present your conclusions which might favor one scholar's interpretation over another's, or advance your own interpretation based on your study of additional primary sources.

Examples

Mirror Case: Tristan and Isolde Playing Chess 

Images left to right:

Mirror Case:  Tristan and Isolde Playing Chess, Paris, France, 14th C.
Lovers (mithuna), Artist not recorded
Single Work, Reza Abbasi
A Bridal Pair, Anonymous South German Master, 15th C.

Tools for Finding Artifacts in NYU's Collections

Finding Images LibGuide
This guide is intended for the researcher who needs to locate visual materials-- from reproductions of artworks to photographic images of just about anything imaginable.

Decorative and Fine Arts LibGuide
This highly informative research guide will help you find information on fine and decorative arts.

Search Finding Aids
Archival collections frequently contain more than just paper.  They can include a wide variety of ephemera and objects.  Use the finding aids search to find archival collections containing artifacts by searching on the general terms "ephemera," "artifacts," or use more specific terms such as "buttons" or "advertisements."

Search BobCat, NYU's library catalog.

Useful Databases

American Broadsides and Ephemera
Broadsides printed between 1820 and 1900 and ephemera printed between 1760 and 1900.

ARTstor
Search one million images in the arts, architecture, humanities, and social sciences and use a suite of software tools to view, present, and manage images for research and pedagogical purposes. ARTstor is a non-profit initiative, founded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, with a mission to use digital technology to enhance scholarship, teaching and learning in the arts and associated fields.

Articles via Databases
Look for electronic resources containing information on material culture and images of objects in databases arranged by subject.