Culture, Material

Culture, Material is a visible process that influences ideas and feelings into three-dimensional form. Material culture consists of tangible things made, manipulated, designed, shaped, altered, and used. It is art, craft, architecture, furnishing, clothing, and food. More importantly, material culture is the totality of these things in the everyday lives of individuals and communities. It is deeply personal and social, mental and physical. Given the depth and intricacies of functional and innovative acts inherent in material culture, it is an embodiment of socially transmitted knowledge and behavior patterns, of practice and creativity, and of production and consumption. Material culture research is not merely the study of things. It is the interrelation of objects and techniques in social life. Material culture is, at bottom, a study of the cultural integration of people placed in a multidimensional cultural setting.

Why should we bother to consider material culture seriously? What makes it distinctive? Historians and other social scientists have long argued that words, rather than things, are better resources for understanding human behavior in the past. But now material culture is regarded as a distinctive type of empirical data. Serious students of material culture never ignore extant, documentary or statistical data that are relevant to their investigation. Material culture research invariably involves work with both words and things of the past. Nevertheless several evidential characteristics—data precedence, temporal tenacity, three-dimensionality, and wider representativeness—are often more prominent in physical evidence than documentary sources.

Material culture is one segment of culture, perhaps the largest segment of it. It embraces only those human expressions that concern things we make. Again, it implies a conscious pursuit of knowledge to transform natural resources into cultural artifacts.

Human beings were making things long before they were speaking or writing about their activity. Material culture then predates verbal culture by several thousand years, since toolmaking, almost universal in all cultures, preceded the invention of writing in practically all of them. Material culture is, therefore, humankind's oldest legacy of cultural expression. In fact, it is the oldest manifestation of our humanness.

For prehistory, which is immensely longer than history, we are entirely dependent on material culture. Human history based on written records goes back approximately six thousand years. Yet, for most of these centuries, the records consist largely of artifacts. To tell full human history, archaeologists are able to extend the human saga by additional fifty thousand years through their analysis of material culture.

In the absence of written records or adequate documentary evidence for any place or period material culture is our best tool for gaining an insight into human activity. Historians normally mark broad stages of the history of mankind by reference to the kind of objects made. Thus the four Ages of Stone, Copper, Bronze and Iron are used to illustrate the progress of material civilization. The Age of Stone falls into three periods: the Paleolithic period (also called the Old Stone Age), the Mesolithic period (also called the Middle Stone Age), and the Neolithic period (also called the New Stone Age). These three stages were first applied to the prehistory of Europe. The Age of Copper, the Age of Bronze, and the Age of Iron represent Copper Age culture, Bronze Age culture, and Iron Age culture respectively. The culture of the transitional period in which both stone and copper were used is known as Chalcolithic culture.

Archaeologically and historically speaking, material culture is the most ancient of time's shapes; it is also a tangible form of a past time extant in present time. We can no longer hear a song in the voice of Lalan Shah, but we can decipher a tenth-century copperplate or appreciate the workmanship of a nineteenth-century ivory mat. Tenaciously durable, if not indestructible, numerous artifacts that have come down to us from the past afford researchers a wide range of data that enable them to explore human behavior and achievements over a much wider arch of cultural change than do written records alone.

The durability of material culture evidence, however, should not be exaggerated. All artifacts, sooner or later, wear out, break down, are damaged beyond repair, and are destroyed or lost. This process occurs even when artifacts are preserved in museums and other cultural repositories. Despite the fact that wood rots, metal corrodes, stone dwindles, and paper disintegrates, material culture enjoys an exceptional longevity among the other remains of the human past.

Objects pertaining to material culture have a remarkably high degree of evidential value and a relatively low incidence of intentional deception when interpreted in terms of veracity or compared with other historical data. Anthropologist William Rathje regards this aspect of material culture as providing anthropologists, archaeologists, historians and other scholars with information that is usually authentic, often irrefutable, quantifiable, investigational, and largely independent of the preconceived notions of traditional interpretive techniques. Consequently physical objects are viewed as far less biased records of human activity in that they usually survive not as predisposed texts or prejudiced condensations of events but often as events themselves.

Occasionally an object, although itself destroyed, survives in another form to help the archaeologist interpret the past. For example, even though the wooden members of a structure have rotted away, they have left patterns of disconnected dots or molds in the ground, allowing archaeologists and architectural historians to decipher important information about the non-existent structure of which the patterns are but a trace. In fact, because of the tenacity of material culture data, archaeologists are capable of extracting much information about a temple or a vihara merely from its ruins.

While anthropologists and archaeologists have pursued the dimensions of material culture since at least the 1870s, historians and some social scientists have only recently begun to discover its potential in culture analysis. A. Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, an anthropologist, was one of the early scholars to use the expression “material culture.” Writing “On the Evolution of Culture” in 1875, Pitt-Rivers urged fellow researchers in the emerging social sciences to consider material culture as the “outward signs and symbols of particular ideas in the mind.”

Like archaeologists, art historians, historians of technology, social historians, behavioral scientists, ethnographers and folklorists now recognise the methodological necessity of extracting and synthesising human behavior from artifacts. By understanding artifacts, suggests art historian Jules Prown, “we can engage another culture in the first instance not with our minds, the seat of our cultural biases, but with our senses.” As Prown further explains, this mode of understanding through the senses allows art historians to put themselves, figuratively speaking, inside the skins of individuals who commissioned, made, used, or enjoyed these objects. “To see with their eyes and touch with their hands, to identify with them emphatically, is clearly a different way of engaging the past than abstractly through the written word,” says Prown. His claim for a special sensory knowledge derivable from material culture data, though subjected to epistemological critique, has supporters not only among art historians but also among historians of technology. For example, Brooke Hindle writes: “The historian of technology has to get inside the machines and processes of which he writes. He must feel their three-dimensionality.” Social historians are interested in the study through artifacts of the belief systems—the values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions of a particular community or society usually across time. Behavioral scientists try to understand what goes on between people and things. In fact, human behavior in material culture is characterised by processes and movements—activities marked by organised behavior. Behavioral scientists emphasise people, for they divide into groups. Common groups are ethnic, racial, regional, religious and occupational. People use objects to express their group identities. They can dress and eat a certain way at a religious festival and follow the tradition of their workplace when they dress and eat the next day. Behavioral scientists examine the persistence and vitality of group identity and boundary by collecting and interpreting products peculiar to the group. Material culture is a focus of interest for ethnographers as well. Since ethnography is a science of people divided into distinct cultural groups, ethnographers are not interested in isolated things but in relationships between things and people. For folklorists, material culture reflects the values and shared symbols of identity of a particular folk. Form, symbols and tradition are of vital importance in determining whether or not an object can be classed as folk. “Form is of utmost importance because it is the most persistent, the least changing of an object's components,” says Henry Glassie. Every culture, whether folk or not, has a set of symbols. In material folk culture, response to symbols is even more implicit because people in their daily lives respond to symbols rather than to objective reality. As for tradition, it is the creation of the people out of the past. Material folk culture is basically, although not exclusively, rural and pre-industrial. It involves traditional skills, such tools as are generally handmade and manually operated, and such devices as are manipulated with little, or without any, mechanical aid. Folk artists/craftspeople render a depiction of the socially transmitted or dictated ideas and inherited symbols in their products.

In spite of the grandiose claims currently made for material culture evidence, it must be admitted that there are significant methodological difficulties as well as a number of problematic issues involved in using material culture data for cultural explanation. Several problems commonly encountered in material culture research are the fecklessness of data survival, the difficulty of access and verification, an exaggeration of human efficacy, and a proclivity for synchronic interpretation. Material culture researchers have often failed to recognize the intricacies of much of their data. Material culture evidence formation has been a complicated process because of selectivity, deterioration or loss of artifacts. Much research needs to be done on the inscrutable processes by which some artifacts survive and some do not. For example, many objects made of both stone and wood have lost their wooden parts because of their organic nature, making it difficult for scholars to determine the features of woodwork. Wood is a perishable material. Climate plays an important role in its survival or decay. Wood is preserved splendidly, sometimes extraordinarily well, in the frozen soil as in the Russian steppes and in the dry environment as in Egypt. As in Bangladesh a tropical climate is the most destructive, with its combination of heavy rainfall, acid soils, high humidity, erosion, abundance of vegetation and insect life. Even a temperate climate, as in much of Europe and North America, is not beneficial to wood. The relatively warm but variable temperatures and fluctuating precipitation, as a rule, combine to accelerate the process of decay. In some circumstances, however, local conditions can counteract these agents of destruction. In spite of all the collections in our museums, we have little quantitative sense of what has been lost. Many Asian and African countries have been disinherited of a substantial part of their cultural property, which includes even such objects as are essential links to a fuller understanding of their cultural heritage. These countries have no adequate awareness of how wide the gap is between the former reality of the physical past and its present reality extant material evidence. For certain historical periods, many more objects created by men exist than do those made by women. More artifacts survive from the upper and middle classes than from the lower classes. Social historians may mitigate these problems by recognising artifacts' gender, race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status implications. Even when adequate information is available, objects often come to the researcher totally isolated from their original historical and cultural contexts. Frequently such contexts have vanished. Without a recognisable context, artifacts are little more than historical mementos. Objects of folk art are often studied totally removed from the folk homes where they were produced. “Out of site” means “out of sight.”

According to Wilcomb Washburn, historians make little use of artifacts in their research because they find no easy access to the information contained in such data. Artifacts are not easily and widely available to scholars for a variety of reasons. Unlike most documented data, artifacts cannot be easily duplicated, microfilmed, and published for further interpretation and verification. Even museums often make no serious effort to catalogue artifacts or store them properly, making it hard for scholars to locate them for systematic study. Washburn proposes to solve the major limitation of material culture data by reducing artifacts to photographs, drawings, and other more portable and quantitative forms of data. Researchers now have a new tool, the computer, to store material culture data for instant use. Technology has enormously increased the potential use of computer graphics, scale-modeling, diagrams, online collaboration, and other research options to analyse the material culture data of earlier historical periods.

Let us now examine the concept of material culture. Warren E. Roberts holds that “we should not study artifacts for their own sake but should study artifacts to gain insights into those people who made and used them.” Henry Glassie states: “The objects man has learned to make are traditionally termed material culture. Culture is intellectual, rational, and abstract; it cannot be material, but material can be cultural and material culture embraces those segments of human learning which provide a person with plans, methods and reasons for producing things which can be seen and touched.”

The artifacts shaped by humankind involve a response to the physical world, a pursuit of knowledge, a process of experience, a projection of thought, and a mental exercise of design. All this leads to what we call creativity. Creativity springs from the individual will but matures with collective wisdom. Collective wisdom gives birth to, among other things, a pattern in behavior that a folk or community is proud of. That is why, to study human behavior as reflected in the artifacts is one of the goals of material culture. Although each society manifests a common pool of knowledge and common aspirations and beliefs through the creation of various artifacts, yet it cannot be denied that people also work from their unique knowledge and experiences as individuals. Material culture represents the fundamental reality of human existence as the combined manifestation of individual expression and collective knowledge.

Both archaeology and material culture deal with artifacts. For a better understanding and appreciation of the role of material culture it would be appropriate to compare archaeology with material culture. James Deetz thinks that the difference between archaeology and material culture is one of scope. He holds that archaeologists can study human behavior objectively and that they need not go into the subjective analysis of their data on the model of ethnologists. Supporting Deetz, Marvin Harris, an ethnologist, has attacked the traditional ethnological alignment of archaeology by urging archaeologists not to force their data into the categories defined by ethnologists. He thinks that archaeologists have developed efficient, objective tools for the understanding of human behavior directly on the basis of the material things discovered. Deetz reduces material culture into what he describes as “most culturally sensitive data,” and he recognizes the potential of material culture only in the context of its relation to human behavior and as opposed to the subjective interpretation of ethnologists. Even though archaeologists can study human behavior objectively, they can hardly reconstruct the events and persons of a past they can never directly know. As archaeologists do not find people they want to study (because they are dead) and are forced to deal with the objects alone, we should consider the potential of material culture beyond the use of archaeological data. Material culture can look at both the people and their tangible creations at least in the present. Hence the real world is at its doorstep. When archaeologists are studying the present-day societies, they can fully apply the techniques of material culture.

For a better understanding of the potential of material culture, let us think of a project for material culture research that covers the following topics: Pottery (mrtshilpa), Mat Weaving (patishilpa), Woodwork (darushilpa), and Vernacular Architecture (sthaniya sthapatya). The geographical area of research for each topic may be the whole of Bangladesh. Based on extensive fieldwork, each work will focus on regional variations of form and style, identifying the geographical/ecological, ethnic, religious, social, technological and all other factors that account for the variations. The artists/craftspeople will not be anonymous; they will come to the forefront, for we need to know the creators. An important part of material culture research is to record the observable behaviors of persons making things, of persons receiving objects, of participants in events in which objects are used. Another goal is to understand how symbols are created and changed, how objects function for people, and how designs are conceived and executed. The fundamental premise of material culture is that objects and actions speak louder than words, and researchers are actively looking at material culture as communication and learning.

Modern research in material culture reveals that the life history of a craftsperson, when compiled by a scholar on the continuous dialogue method in the environment in which that craftsperson works and creates objects, becomes a mine of data in context. A master craftsperson is more experienced, thoughtful and creative. As he has been producing objects for a long period of time, his products have invariably varied in form and content across time. His life history offers a straightforward, intimate picture of his traditional attitudes and beliefs across time. We will learn about his entire life, coming to an understanding of how his work, his artistic performance, has been shaped by personal and social needs, by physical and economic conditions. By compiling the biography of a master craftsman we can study him to analyze the creative impulse and to interpret how personality is conveyed through objects and technical activities. Joining verbal and other types of evidence, we can get a broader, more vivid picture of the master craftsman's endeavor. Despite the commercialisation and standardisation of society, people still love tradition. They still prefer the handmade. Tradition is best reflected in the work of master craftsmen who retain control over their lives by realising the aesthetics and use of tradition. [Firoz Mahmud]