Becoming America: Thinking through Identity, Culture, and Traditions in Early America

How to Read an Object

Doing Detective Work

Being a historian or archaeologist is a lot like being a detective. You start out with clues, which are pieces of evidence that people leave behind. Those clues can be written evidence like letters, receipts, and other documents. Even the most ordinary object can be fascinating once you start to follow the clues. That’s what makes them interesting to study. The objects we have make us unique and they help provide information about the times we live in.

Six large ceramic jars with different blue painted details are displayed on a long table in front of a windowed wall.

Every object contains clues about the identity of its creator and the cultural influences that creator has experienced. When people from two cultures meet, they often trade goods, techniques, and ideas. This is called a “cultural exchange.” The materials, decoration, and even shape of an object can tell us more about the people that the creator may have met or the experiences they might have had in their life. 

We also know that certain habits, practices, or ways of thinking influence the way objects were made or how they were shared. For example, for many centuries most artists did not sign their work! Some objects were made in one region and transported elsewhere through trade or human migration. Other objects might be copies of something originally made by a different culture.

Sometimes, there’s just a lot of missing information. There are many objects in the Fielding Collection that have unknown artists, some that don’t have an actual date, and others that we aren’t quite sure of where they come from. But each object has clues that could help us get more details if we know where to look. Sometimes, there’s just no good answer and we have to make our best guess by filling in details with similar historical facts and information.

When historians are missing information about an object they have to make decisions about what and how much they can say about that object.  What clues can help us learn more about an object?

Object Explorations and Activities