What is an artefact?
Any surviving object which has been used by people in the past for practical and/or aesthetic purposes is an historical artefact. A child’s lunchbox of the 1980s, a 1960s mini-skirt, a slide rule of the 1950s, a nineteenth-century oil lamp and a Stone Age scraper are all historical artefacts, each illustrative of aspects of the lives of the people who made and used them. Pictures, written documents, printed books, electronic records and items in the environment are also artefacts, but these sources have to be treated in rather different ways and they will be considered in further sections below.
The role of artefacts
Historical artefacts can make a distinctive contribution to the child’s historical understanding and to the development of historical skills:
- the handling and investigation of historical artefacts is by its nature activity-based and can have a strong motivating influence in the teaching and learning of history
- children who have reading or other learning difficulties can be at least as effective as their classmates in analysing and making deductions from the evidence of artefacts
- the use of artefacts as historical evidence makes an important contribution to achieving a broad and balanced understanding of history. Writing has existed for a comparatively short part of human history, and even when used it tended to be the preserve of the rich, powerful and well educated. Objects, on the other hand, have been used and owned by all classes of people and by women as much as men
- examining artefacts can help children to appreciate the ingenuity of people in the past. Because the technologies available to us today are so much more varied and sophisticated, the appliances, tools and items we make and use appear to be much ‘better’ than those used by people in the past. By examining historical artefacts children can appreciate that people in the past were equally creative at solving practical problems, given the constraints of the technologies available to them
- artefacts provide particularly valuable opportunities to examine instances of cause, effect, change and continuity. They will often reflect the needs, circumstances or technologies of their users, and the development of related objects over time may be traced, for example ‘lamps and lights through the centuries’.
Finding and choosing artefacts
The most suitable historical artefacts for use with primary children are
- sufficiently robust to be handled with care by the pupils. Often children can tell a great deal about an object by handling and feeling it.Children should be taught to care for and respect old items, and older children may find it interesting to learn about how objects deteriorate because of age and use: for example, the yellowing of newspapers, the fading of fabrics and the effects of corrosion may be readily investigated in science work
- drawn from a wide range of human activities, many of which are often unrecorded in documentary sources, for example domestic equipment, farm tools, tools used by craft workers, clothes and school equipment
- not necessarily very old. One of the most relevant and important groups of objects can be acquired from the children themselves: toys no longer used, items of clothing, mementoes, old birthday cards etc. may be used to investigate their own development.
Items may be acquired from
- the parents, grandparents and wider family circle of pupils. When family history is undertaken parents and other family members might be encouraged to show or lend old items to the children in the class
- junk shops and second-hand stalls
- retired workers who may have kept tools or items associated with their jobs
- some local museums that may be able to lend some items or demonstrate them to the children.
A school might decide to collect such items over the years to create a history collection, kit or small museum which would be available to all classes in the school. If objects are collected it is important to obtain and record as much information as possible about the origins of the exhibits as this will be valuable in future years.
While objects from the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries may be obtained relatively easily, small objects from earlier periods are rarer. Their value and condition may make them unsuitable for use in the classroom. Modern replicas of some domestic items, for example candle holders, weights and balances, wooden toys and Stone Age lamps, are sold in museum shops and, if made using authentic techniques, these can be valuable in the classroom.
EXEMPLAR 11 - Investigating an object (third and fourth classes)
EXEMPLAR 12 - Activities and artefacts