Family Heirlooms in the Past

vicky creweBy Vicky Crewe, Principal Investigator, Cardiff University



Objects can carry powerful meanings, not least when they’re transformed from ordinary ‘things’ into family heirlooms. People often hold onto family items long after they’ve ceased to be useful or fashionable, treasuring them because they’re tangible links to people and places that are long gone. In this way, individuals become curators of their own family histories.

But this is not a new practice. For a long time archaeologists have noticed that some items buried in the ground – in graves, houses and temples, for instance – are much older than the feature they are found in. These objects often have tell-tale signs of use, wear and repair, showing that they’ve been in circulation for a long period of time. For example, Hella Eckhardt and Howard Williams have noted that reused Roman jewellery and coins (like the one below) turn up fairly frequently in Anglo-Saxon graves of the 5th to 7th centuries AD. These objects were several hundred years old when they were buried with the dead.

Pierced Roman coin

A pierced Roman from the 1st century AD, found in Darlington by a metal detectorist. Coins like this seem to have been worn as pendants, often by women and children. Although this one wasn’t found in a grave, many similar coins turn up in Anglo-Saxon burials. Were they heirlooms, passed down through the generations? (Image courtesy of the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Information about this object can be found here).

By studying these older objects, we can start to see what people in the past handed down through the generations. We can’t say for certain why people clung onto these old items in the past, or why they decided to dispose of them when they did. It is possible that they were valued for supposedly magical properties or for protection. But one way of interpreting these ‘curated’ items is as heirlooms, passed from one member of a family to another.

In my case study for the Family Archive Project I’m going to review the evidence for the continued use and repair of domestic and personal items, such as jewellery, which might have had familial importance. I’m going to focus my attention on what is generally known in archaeology as the historical period – from the 5th century AD almost to the present day. Using data which has already been published, I will build up a picture of the types of personal objects that were ‘curated’ in the past, the ways in which they were repaired, and the places that they were found. By combining these results with the findings from the other case studies, the project team will be able to look for similarities and differences in the ways that families have used heirlooms and created family identities over time.

Don’t forget to join us on Twitter using the project hashtag #famarchive – we’d love to hear from you.


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