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Material Culture

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Inca Textile Tunic, Peru

Inca Textile Tunic, Peru

John Weinstein © The Field Museum
Definition:

The term "material culture" is often used by archaeologists as a non-specific way to refer to the artifacts or other concrete things left by past cultures. An archaeologist thus can be described as a person who studies the material culture of a past society.

A "material culture study", however, is one that emphasizes artifacts as a subject unto themselves, that is, largely separate from their context. Someone who studies textiles or paintings in a museum, or investigates classes of artifacts such as projectile points or ceramic vessels, would be a material cultural specialist.

Material Culture and Material Culture Study

The distinction is an important one to make as separate from, say, a behavioral ecologist or post-processualist.

Material culture means something else to art historians. Interestingly enough, when they speak of material culture they look at an object within its environmental and cultural context, as you can see at this description of Material Culture from the Art History department at UW Madison.

More Information

The Journal of Material Culture is a fairly new journal dedicated to the archaeological side of this fascinating study.

This glossary entry is part of the Dictionary of Archaeology.

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