Artefact vs. artifact?

Artefact” and “artifact” are different spellings of the same noun. “Artifact” is an American spelling, while “artefact” is chiefly British.

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What is the difference between artefact and artifact?

You don’t need to be a master of orthography to understand the difference between artefact and artifact. They are simply different spellings of the same word, a noun we use to reference culturally or historically significant relics from the past (as long as they are made by humans, of course). 

Should I use artifact or artefact?

Artifact” is the standard American English spelling, while “artefact” (with an -e-) is chiefly British. Therefore, if you’re writing for an American audience, use “artifact.” Otherwise, you might have better luck using “artefact” instead.

What is the definition of artifact?

According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the noun artifact (also “artefact”) represents a human-made object from an earlier time that possesses a level of cultural or historical interest (“Artifact” 90). 

Sentence examples: 

  • “The boundary stone is a long-lost artifact of ancient Babylon.”
  • “Scientist’s new object of archaeological interest involves a shard of pottery, an artifact that predates the Stone Age (4,000–2,000 BC).”
  • “The ocean-bound automobile is an artifact of Europe’s pre-Industrial Revolution.” 
  • “Restoration efforts have begun at the Princeton University facility to learn more about the artifact, a work of art reminiscent of Europe’s early Renaissance.”

Less literal interpretations of the noun describe something that seemingly lingers from the past (such as a reminder). 

Sentence examples:

  • “Lingering isotopes found in the environment are artifacts of civilizations’ nuclear follies.”
  • “Grandpa’s preference for orange slices and a rootbeer float is an artifact of his childhood.” 
  • “Nudists say textile beaches set the cultural stage for body shaming and that we must abandon this practice behind as a societal artifact.” 

Additionally, the noun artefact can reference an experimental error that results from a scientific investigation (90). However, we can extend this definition to topics like electrocardiographs, photography, or even digital recordings to describe something caused by an extraneous force (usually human) that wouldn’t naturally occur otherwise. 

Sentence examples:

  • “Professors of cytology say the lung abnormality is an artifact caused by the poor preparation of a microscope slide.” 
  • “It’s not uncommon for a jpeg image to contain unsightly compression artifacts.”
  • “The Defense Departments says the mysterious object in the digital image is an artifact caused by faulty camera sensors.”

What is another word for artifact?

Synonyms of artefact include: Antique, antiquities, afterimage, curio, ghost, heirloom, memento, relic, remains, remembrance, reminder, remnant, trace, vestige. 

Etymology of artifact

The word artifact descends from the Latin phrase arte factum, where arte means ‘something made with skill’ and factum (neuter past participle of facere ‘to make’) means ‘to make or bring about.’ The Latin root arte essentially translates to “art” (or anything created from skill), which we see in similar words like artifice (‘an artful skill,‘trick’) or artificial (‘unnatural products of human conception’). 

How to use artifact vs. artefact in a sentence?

The first step to writing the noun artifact or artefact in a sentence is to make sure you’re considerate of the audience:

  • When writing for an American audience, use “artifact” (with an -i-).
  • If you’re writing for a British audience, use “artefact” (with an -e-). 

What is an artifact?

Next, it’s vital to understand what an artifact is and is not. Based on our dictionary definitions, we already know that an artifact can represent literal “relics,” reminders, or even scientific errors. However, the essential trait of an artifact is that they are always created by humans. 

Examples of artifacts:

  • Any tool or weapon created by historical civilizations
  • Artwork from previous eras or civilizations
  • Objects excavated from human burial sites
  • Image glitches and alterations on film or digital imaging
  • Unnatural results caused by human errors within scientific investigations (e.g., false-positive/negative results, contamination, etc.)

What isn’t an artifact?

The word artifact often evokes images of dusty, archeological excavations where a researcher pops up with a stone tool and shouts, “I’ve found it!” But not everything discovered from an excavation site is a “true artifact” (even if they provide evidence of past human life). 

For example, non-portable artifacts (properly called “features”) are non-moveable locations or environments that bear evidence of historical human activity (e.g., pathways and soil stains from storage structures or tools). Archaeologists distinguish stratigraphic features from “true artifacts” because the purpose of a feature is to provide context for artifacts

Another confusing concept includes ecofacts or biofacts, which are remnants of any non-human organism, whether it’s a mammal, insect, or plant. Therefore, fossils, bones, or frozen microorganisms are not artifacts, but you will often see them displayed like one. 

Things that are not artifacts:

  • Human or animal bones (without human modification)
  • Fossils
  • Dinosaur bones
  • Buildings
  • Trenches 
  • Plants 
  • Roads
  • Rocks

Published sentence examples of artifact and artefact

  • “The artifact, which scientists think is about 73,000 years old, predates the oldest previously known modern human abstract drawings from Europe by about 30,000 years.” — The New York Times
  • “Investigation has found a permanent settlement with several long houses, as well as a broad range of artifacts and bone material.” — Kitchener Today
  • “The University of Aberdeen in Scotland has announced that it will fully repatriate a Benin Bronze sculpture to Nigeria due to the ‘extremely immoral’ acquisition of the artefact.” — Okay Africa
  • “The documentary tells the story of the Harlem Cultural Festival, which lasted for six weeks in 1969 and boasted performances from Stevie Wonder and Gladys Knight, yet somehow remains an obscure cultural artifact.” — W Magazine
  • “‘A book is more than the sum of its materials. It is an artifact of the human mind and hand.’” — The Wall Street Journal
  • “After eliminating the possibility that it was an artifact in image processing, further work determined it lined up perfectly with the orbit of Venus.” — Slash Gear
  • “Without the use of artifact removal algorithms and an abrasive skin preparation gel, the CSs were able to continuously maintain low impedances and a decoding accuracy of SSVEP.” — Science Advances

Additional reading

If you enjoy learning about American and British English spelling variants, check out The Word Counter’s lessons on topics such as: 

Test Yourself!

Test how well you understand the difference between artifact and artefact with the following multiple-choice questions. 

  1. True or false?: Artifacts always have a direct human origin.
    a. True
    b. False
  2. True or false?: Artefact is a US spelling variant of artefact.
    a. True
    b. False
  3. True or false?: An artifact of the x-ray process is a product of an extrinsic agent.
    a. True
    b. False
  4. ___________ is primarily a British English spelling. 
    a. Artifact
    b. Artefact
    c. A and B
    d. None of the above
  5. Which of the following is an artifact?
    a. A handmade object
    b. An inherent element of the environment 
    c. Dinosaur fossils
    d. A spurious observation
  6. Which of the following is a synonym of artifact?
    a. Afterimage
    b. Fossil
    c. Dinosaur 
    d. X-ray
  7. Which of the following statements contains the correct use of the noun artifact?
    a. “The museum’s artifact display includes the Krestovka mammoth, a 1.2 million-year-old wooly mammoth discovered in northeastern Siberia.”
    b. “Medical students are attempting to replicate the artifact’s DNA in living tissue to learn more about human evolution.” 
    c. “The current fixation of conspiracy theorists involves a fossilized artifact found near a destroyed assembly plant.” 
    d. None of the above

Answers

  1. B
  2. A
  3. A
  4. B
  5. A
  6. A
  7. D

Sources

  1. Artifact.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed., Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2021. 
  2. Artifact.” The Merriam-Webster.com Thesaurus, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  3. “Artifact.” The New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 90. 
  4. Artifice.” The Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 2021.
  5. Artificial.” Collins English Dictionary, Harpercollins Publishers, 2021.
  6. Artefact.” Lexico, Oxford University Press, 2021.
  7. Davis, F. “Five Best: On Resilience.” The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com, 8 Jan 2021. 
  8. Kim, J., et al. “Leaf-inspired homeostatic cellulose biosensors.” Science Advances, Vol. 7, No. 16, Science Magazine, 16 Apr 2021. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abe7432. 
  9. Marine, B. “The Best Documentaries of 2021.” W Magazine, wmagazine.com, 24 Mar 2021. 
  10. McGlaun, S. “NASA Parker Solar Probe snaps images of Venus’ dust ring.” Slash Gear, slashgear.com, 20 Apr 2021.
  11. Schulz, L. “‘Every day has been exciting’: Archaeological excavation continues in Fischer-Hallman area.” Kitchener Today, kitchenertoday.com, 14 Oct 2020.
  12. Shabangu, N. “Scottish University Set to Return Looted Nigerian Artefact.” Okay Africa, okayafrica.com, 26 Mar 2021.
  13. St. Fluer, N. “Oldest Known Drawing by Human Hands Discovered in South African Cave.” The New York Times, nytimes.com, 12 Sept 2018.
  14. What is archaeology?” Society for American Archaeology, ssa.org, 2021.