Material culture is “the study through artifacts of the beliefs values, ideas, attitudes, and assumptions of a particular community or society at a given time” (Prown. 1982.) Prown states that “objects made or modified by man reflect, consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly, the beliefs of individuals who made, commissioned, purchased, or used them, and by extension the beliefs of the larger society to which they belonged.” He has developed a functional classification of the objects of material culture, recognizing objects of art, diversions, adornment, modifications of the landscape, applied (decorative) arts, and devices. The artifacts and the physical landscape of the Duck Creek Harbor site which I use in this unit fall within the categories of diversions (although there is limited representation of these), modifications of the landscape (there is much opportunity for study here), decorative arts, and devices.
The Duck Creek Harbor artifacts which are objects of diversion include a bisque doll’s head, some doll accessories, and a collection of clay marbles (see descriptions below.) Modifications of the landscape include the placement of Commercial Street (which runs next to Duck Creek Harbor) and its structures and dwelling places, the foot bridge spanning Duck Creek (see below), a series of wharves and oyster shacks, shops and stores, the railroad tracks and dike, and the disturbed hydrologic flow of salt water and the storm drains dumping into the creek. The decorative arts are represented by Sandwich glass and other pressed glass, semiporcelains, and souvenir items. The devices combine the utilitarian with decorative elements. The unit explores the following topics which were important to the seminar: using objects as historical events; seeking an explanation of how the world we live in came to be; identifying the makers and users of the objects; seeking their attitudes and values; defining their objects’ stylistic characteristics and their society and culture. It is my intention that this unit, with its focus on applied (decorative) arts and technological devices, will enable my students to develop some experience in the study of humanmade objects (including description, deduction, and speculation). Student work is intended to shed light on who the users of the artifacts were, their ages, relative wealth, gender, places of residence, and professions.
Classroom activities are presented to help in the recognition of stylistic influences and sources and trade networks. Artifacts are studied in a taxonomic manner, but their cultural significance also is sought. Again, a principal goal of the unit is to gain an understanding of the nature of New England society in a rural community during the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. As an additional note, it is my hope that the techniques that I develop for teaching about these objects and their connection with their parent society and culture will have some application to the teaching about objects of nature, the subject matter of scientists. The processes of description, deduction, and speculation which are central to the examination of artifacts bear strong resemblance to observation of, experimentation with, and theorizing about the natural world the methodologies of science.