The hidden stories in artefacts

Why do historians like artefacts so much? Things like ancient pots, old clothes, and your great-grandfather’s watch, can make history nerds very excited because artefacts tell stories. Sometimes the story an artefact reveals is obvious, but at other times is takes a lot of careful observation and even extra research to make the story clear. All ‘man-made’ objects can tell us stories about people, and those stories are often pretty interesting when we are looking at objects from the past. Let’s have a look at an example.

‘Look what I found!’potty

This undecorated white bowl is about 25cm across and could probably hold 4L of water. It has a sturdy handle and a small square of cut-up newspaper inside with a date on it 1858. It was discovered underneath an old wardrobe in a miner’s cottage in Eureka Street, Ballarat. What could it be?

To reveal the stories this artefact is hiding, we need to figure out what it was used for in the past. Here are some questions and example answers that help us figure out what it was made to do. Some of these questions are difficult or impossible to answer depending on the artefact you are studying, but it’s important to think about them when you are trying to uncover an artefact’s story.

Questions that help us ‘unpack’ the stories hidden in artefacts

  1. What do you think this artefact was made for/to do?

Maybe it’s a soup serving bowl, but the cut-up newspaper makes me think it’s a toilet from the olden days because you don’t put paper in soup, but you do put it in a toilet bowl. 

  1. When in history might this have been used?

Luckily we found a date alongside the artefact – the cut-up newspaper is dated 1858. This makes our artefact over 150 years old, and back then flushing toilets and toilet paper weren’t really invented, so the date supports the idea, or theory, that this may be an olden day’s toilet.

  1. What is it made of and what does this tell us about it?

This artefact is a ceramic bowl, so it’s probably made out of some kind of clay. It looks like it was made using a mould; it’s not a hand-made artefact. This fits with the time period – if this was made around 1858 it was probably made in a factory in England (the world’s first factories had started to mass-produce household items like this between 1800 and 1900). For a long time in history, the colour white has been associated with cleanliness. Today’s toilets are mostly white, so that also supports the theory that it was used as a toilet.

  1. Where was it discovered and what does that tell us about it?

It was found underneath a wardrobe in a bedroom. The toilets of this time in history, often called chamber pots, were usually stored under beds or bedroom furniture so they were handy in a rush, but certainly weren’t on show for guests to see. Again, the place it was found supports the theory that it’s a 19th century toilet.

  1. Is it a fancy item or a simple artefact? What does this tell us about the people who may have owned/used it?

It is a simple item with no decoration. This makes me think that it was designed to be functional, not pretty, and again supports the theory that it’s a toilet. Just like today, back in the 1850s everyone needed a toilet, so this wasn’t a rare, luxury item. Therefore I think I would be able to find lots of other examples of such toilets if I do some research.

  1. Was it an item for men or women, or both? How can we know? What does this tell us?

We can’t really tell if this item was created for a man or woman, but again the idea that it’s a unisex item (for use by both men and women) makes me think it’s a toilet. While men and women use a modern toilet differently and no doubt used an olden day’s toilet differently, I think both men and women would be able to use this artefact for that purpose.

  1. Does it look like something we have seen before? Have you seen these in movies or museums? What can that extra knowledge tell us about this artefact?

I saw these under beds in the tents, huts and houses when I was at Sovereign Hill. As these buildings didn’t always have a room (usually outside – a ‘dunny’ or outhouse) dedicated to bathroom/toilet ‘business’, it again makes me think that this is an 1850’s toilet.

  1. How is it different to similar items we use today?

If it is indeed a toilet, it’s very different to the kind we use today. The biggest difference between this item and toilets today is its lack of a flush button and sewerage pipe. My guess is that when it was full, you might throw its yucky contents down a hole in the bush/garden, or maybe you could even put it on your garden as plant food.

Let’s summarise the stories this artefact has revealed. If it is indeed a toilet (which it is  :), it tells us stories about 19th century sanitation practices, the impact of the Industrial Revolution (the invention of factories in this case) on people’s everyday lives, and the kinds of technologies and materials that people in the past have developed and found practical uses for.

Further research tips

Thanks to the internet, it has never been easier to learn about the world! If you are studying artefacts, here are some great websites that will help deepen your understanding of the stories they tell.

  • Trove is a fantastic tool for history students and their teachers. Simply type in the name of your topic, artefact, historical event, or name, to find books, photographs, digitised newspapers, videos, maps and more to help with your research.trove
  • Simple English Wikipedia is great for younger students and EAL learners when conducting research. It gives simple explanations and great images on a wide range of
  • Google Images is another easy way to find more detail on

Links and References:

A student-friendly article on the power of artefacts:

An artefact article for teachers:

The history of the toilet:

The history of sanitation:


Simple English Wikipedia:

Google Images:

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