xx How to Evaluate Artifacts CHALLENGES IN INTERPRETATION Interpreting an artifact is no easy task. There are a number of considerations even before evaluating the specific object. Critical in most cases is the con- text in which an artifact was found where something is discovered—what surrounds it—can be as important as what is found. Often, however, arti- facts lack this vital information. Those discovered long ago, especially by early collectors, or that were uncovered before archaeologists made as care- ful a study of context as they do now must be evaluated solely on their own merits. Until recently, archaeologists were more interested in temples, palaces, and other elite sites. These are important to be sure, but focusing solely on the ruler or well-to-do individuals or populations prejudices our idea of the past. Most people did not live in palaces, and most lacked expensive table- ware that was more likely to be saved and to survive, so to focus only on the elite portions of society is to ignore most everyone else. In fairness, those with fewer resources often left less behind at least less survives in many cases. Items of wood or leather, unless preserved in anaerobic conditions, break down over time, whereas a hoard of silver plate might last centuries. Iron tools and weapons tend to rust the gladius in this book, for example, rusted in such a way that it melded with parts of its scabbard. There are a number of elite items covered here, but so too are public toilets, horse bits, dice, and other artifacts that the population at large used regularly. Not everything survives, and so any picture we gain from artifacts is at best an incomplete picture. In recent decades archaeologists have also been keen to preserve as much of archaeological sites as they can, partially in hopes that future techniques will be better than those we possess now. As a result, what they uncover is often restricted to a small sample. At its best, archaeology is like working on a puzzle where many if not most pieces are missing. We get an idea of the past, but we cannot recover it completely. Regardless of how much information an artifact conveys or is associated with it, historians and archaeologists must interpret that information. Sometimes this is relatively simple. A weapon, for example, especially if it conforms to a well-known type such as a sword (see the entry Gladius), al- lows one to make certain conclusions by analogy if it is not already obvious. There are times when interpretation is more difficult. A votive figure dis- covered at a healing shrine, for instance, tells us something about religious practices and medical concerns, but the artifact itself may be more difficult to interpret. We may not know what specific ailment it was meant to help alleviate or how it was meant to appeal to the gods. While the item’s pur- pose and use may have been obvious to the people of the time, this is not always the case for us. There are also artifacts for which we are left with more questions than answers. Various attempts have been made to explain Roman dodecahedrons of bronze or stone found all over the empire. Some
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