Interpreting Artifacts as Sources: An Example 


Like all historical documents, objects can be “read” or analyzed in different ways. Researchers can focus on the function of objects, how objects were constructed, their decorative or aesthetic aspects, their cultural symbolism or their history. Objects can tell us how ordinary people lived, how they cooked their food, washed their clothes or ploughed their fields. Wear and tear on items show how, or how much, objects were used.  Assessment of materials used in the manufacture of an object can reveal the state of technology at the time in which it was made. Comparing similar items together show how these objects changed or improved over time. Decorative aspects and luxury materials, or the lack of them, can show the class and wealth of the individual who owned the object. Meanings can become associated with objects; the importance attached to some objects is not implicit within the item but rather is assigned to them by people. Objects used only by one gender can reveal attitudes about the roles of men and women. Souvenirs commemorate significant experiences. Other items can show allegiance or the affiliation of an individual with a professional society and the values associated with it. The context of an object changes its meaning too; an object used in the home has a different meaning compared to the same object displayed in a museum or to one discarded as garbage. Knowing the history of the object – its previous owners, its manufacturer and its uses –  can give us biographical information about the person who owned it and the company which made it. Items that were gifts tell us about relationships between individuals.
surgical kitFor example, this late nineteenth-century surgical and diagnostic set can be interpreted in various ways. The fact that it includes instruments for eye and skull surgery, amputation, and diagnosis of urinary and prostate problems indicates its owner could have been a general practitioner rather than a specialist. The materials used in this case and its instruments –  ivory for some instrument handles and a velvet lining – as well as the manufacturing company of Luer of Paris, France, suggest the wealth and high status of the owner. We can speculate that the authority with which doctors were regarded at the time was reinforced by such an impressive surgical set. The ebony handles of some amputation knives reveal that sterilization in surgery was not far advanced, since it was difficult to completely clean wood, a material which was replaced by metal in the early twentieth century. Several instruments are missing which may suggest that these were used frequently. An engraved plate on the lid of the case shows the name of the owner, Dr. Peter Stewart. Tracing his history, and the history of the donor, his great-grandson Dr. Charles Thompson, the Head of Ophthalmology at Western, indicates a family interest in medicine, and a compulsion to keep items as heirlooms rather than discarding them as antiquated technology.