The distinction between an artifact (an object you study to learn about how things happen) and a document (an object you read to find out what happened) is not the presence or absence of written language. Instead, the distinction is in the way the object is used, the way that the historian "reads" the object.
This is easier to comprehend when concrete examples are used. Imagine, for example, a pot inscribed with various symbols. An historian might use this pot as an artifact of the culture which produced it, focusing on such questions as the way that the pot was made, how it fits with other pots made around the same time, and similar questions. The historian might also use the pot as a document, by reading the symbols--a written language--to see the signature of its maker and the date it was made. The object--the pot--is the same exact object, whether the historian uses it as an artifact or as a document. The distinction is entirely in the way that the historian interacts with and uses the object.
Another example is a novel, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. An historian who wants to find out what F. Scott Fitzgerald actually wrote in the novel--the content of the book--would use it as a document, as it contains the sum of what Fitzgerald published under that title. The novel is a document of what Fitzgerald published. But if the historian used the novel as an artifact, he or she would focus not only on the content of the novel (the documentary evidence) but also on the artifactual evidence of the novel. Thus the historian using The Great Gatsby as an artifact would focus on the context in which the novel was written (What other novels came out that year? What events happened that influenced its contents?), as well as the creative processes behind the novel's finished version (Were there other drafts? What major changes did Fitzgerald make?).
Sometimes novels--especially historical novels--can be very good artifacts of a time (meaning, by reading them, the historian can learn a lot about the time during which it was written). These same novels can also be very poor historical documents (meaning that the history they write about is not very accurate). For example, most people who read Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter make the mistake of reading the novel as a document about Puritan society, instead of as an artifact of Hawthorne's own Victorian era. Thus, the popular perception of Puritans is that they were prudish and dour; but historical evidence refutes this. Hawthorne's obsession with adultery was the result of Victorian mores, not of Puritan culture.
Like novels, films can be extremely dangerous documents about a time, but very good artifacts of a time. In this course, we will use films as reflections of the time in which they were made (as "artifacts"), and not as truthful depictions of actual historical events (as "documents"). This is an important distinction. This will be especially evident when we view D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation.
Keep in mind that "legitimate historians" try to persuade people in this way all the time--so why all the fuss over inaccuracy in films? Perhaps the most important reason for the fuss is that film is much more convincing than the printed page and much more interesting than most history professors's lectures. It seems real and "True." Because of film's power to convince, many historians see film as a more dangerous history teacher than themselves, and prone to abuse its power.
As you begin to watch films in this course, keep in mind the ways in which the filmmakers attempt to persuade you. What are they trying to tell you? What were they trying to tell the people of their time? To whom did they try to speak? The films we will watch in this course will be contemporary "message films," films made to depict current events of the times they were made. Thus, they are primary documents of the values, concerns, and issues of their time. Think about whether or not the historians we are reading alongside the films explain these concerns, values, and issues.
Some interesting links for film history:
Prepared by Professor Catherine Lavender for courses taught in The Department of History, The College of Staten Island of The City University of New York. Send email to email@example.com
Fall Semester 1997. Last modified: Tuesday 26 August 1997