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Primary Sources: Art, Artifacts, and Photographs

This guide is an introduction to primary sources research.

About Art, Artifacts, and Photographs

Primary sources can include visual sources such as historical artifacts, photographs, or art work produced during the period you are studying.

Art, Artifacts, and Photographs

Art

Art objects are the product of the historical period in which they are produced.  Here are some questions to get you started on analyzing these types of resources:

What is the purpose of the object?  To teach, to criticize, to advocate for change?

What does the object convey about this period of history?  What events may have influenced the production of the work?  What technological advances are depicted?

What does the object convey about the society which produced it?  How are women portrayed?  How do people dress?  How are various social classes represented?  

Artifacts

Artifacts are physical objects created and used by humans.  Artifacts may include such items as eating utensils, tools, clothing, and coins.  When written records are scarce, these items help researchers discover how people lived.  Since many artifacts have no accompanying context, it is important to build a solid understanding of the historical period in which it was produced.  Some points to keep in mind:

What is the object made of?  How was it created or manufactured?  Were there recent technological advances which made its creation possible?

How was the object used?  Was it an everyday item available to the working class?  Or a specialty item available only to select members of society?

Has the object been repaired?  Is it plain or has it been decorated?  What does this imply about the owner of the object and their economic and/or social status?

Photographs

Photographs provide a visual record of historical events, people, and places.  Some photographs, however, may be staged in order to make a statement or to evoke the look and feel of a former time period.  Here are some things to consider when studying these types of documents:

What is the purpose of the photograph?  To capture a scene, make a statement?

What type of photograph is it: tintype, lantern slide, cyanotype, albumen?  How does this help date the photograph?

Are there people or buildings in the photographs that can help date the place, date and event? 

For a sample analysis of a photograph, see Analyzing a Daguerreotype.