Family History As Archaeology

When I was a little girl, my granny, Sally Mae, had an olive green teacup she drank out of every single morning. It became synonymous with the first half of the day at her house; it was rare to see her without it before 11am. When she’d ask someone to “help me find my cup!” it was obvious which one she was talking about – there just wasn’t another.

Years later, when my own son was learning to drink from a cup (not a sippy), my dad taught him to drink from the same olive green heirloom. Small in size, probably worth only cents monetarily, it is something I will always treasure. I love thinking about how tickled she would have been watching her tiny, blonde (like her) great-grandson learning to take his first ‘big-boy’ sips from it.





What does this blurb of family history have to do with archaeology? Well…everything. Bear with me.


When you’re out on your farm, or in the woods, a park, a road cut – anywhere, really – and you come across a neat artifact, before you pick it up, I encourage you to stop. Pause.


Remember your grandpa’s favorite hammer?  The one you watched him repair countless things with and coveted, only to smash your thumb with when you finally used it (but were too afraid to tell him because he warned you it was heavy)? Or your mother’s best kitchen knife – the one you watched her dice vegetables with for years, using it so effortlessly it seemed like an extension of her own hand. What about your favorite aunt’s coffee cup? The one she would fix you hot chocolate in when you came to visit, subtly letting you know you were, of course, her favorite, by allowing you to use such a sacred vessel.


All of these things belonged to someone you love. They are material representations of nostalgia, affection, memories, and lives lived together. If you knew someone had your grandpa’s hammer, your dad’s typewriter, your mom’s kitchen knife, and was mistreating it, or had it shoved away somewhere where it wasn’t taken care of or used properly, you’d be upset. We all would. I can’t imagine seeing that olive green teacup on a shelf for sale at Peddler’s Mall, or coming across my dad’s typewriter or my mom’s swan candy dish in an online auction. Those familial items are just that – familial. They help me keep a tangible bit of life in daily view, reminding me from where – and from whom – I came from.  The cost or value is unimportant – it’s the family ties and memories they keep alive that are so priceless.


You may be asking  – how does this relate to archaeology, again? Why am I still reading this?


Because the inherited items we treasure now are no different than any of the items you may find while enjoying the outdoors. The smooth hammerstone you come across while out looking for your deer blind was once someone’s favorite tool, maybe passed from father to son. The beautifully worn scraper you dug up while doing some landscaping belonged to a previous resident of your space who undoubtedly shared it with family members because of the reliably sharp edge and ease of use. The perfect rim of a ceramic vessel you discovered out hiking in the woods was a matriarch’s favorite to use, admired and appreciated by all her family members.
There is nothing between us but time. The items we loved, our relatives loved. The things you might come across are the same. They are artifacts that at one point were used and appreciated by families and friends, children watching and learning from repetition with familiar objects the same way children watch and learn now. A solid hammerstone was a valuable item – a father would undoubtedly pass his best one on to his younger son when he ‘retired’ from doing as much manual labor. A good knife/scraper was just that – a reliable blade. It only makes sense that a trustworthy one would be passed on rather than discarded.

When we take things as soon as we find them without recording the place, the depth, the things around it – the provenience –  we are depreciating the history of that object. We are ignoring what that item meant to the actual people who loved it, and for whatever reason had to leave it behind. Not just the material it was made from, or the exact geological position, but the family history behind it. A favorite knife. A prized ceramic piece. A trusty tool. Something we think might be a fabulous paperweight, or even fetch some cash being sold, was once just like the everyday items you cherish because of the lives of the people attached to them. Before you pocket artifacts you come across, think about the people they used to belong to, and how they would feel knowing the item they loved, used, relied on, was going to become a random decoration or sold at an auction. You would hate the thought, right? (I know I would.) So why would the original owners, albeit long gone, feel any differently? People are people. Emotional attachment to objects is real, and respectable. We can safely assume it is an age old sentiment, and as such, should treat the artifacts we find with the respect deserved.


So what can we do? For starters, simply, don’t pick it up. It is exciting to come across celts and scrapers and hammerstones, pieces of pipes (or even whole ones!), etc., yes. Absolutely. But keeping in mind the real life humans that the objects belonged to, a better approach may be to help not only archaeologists preserve the items, but also the descendants of the individuals who originally made and used them. Collections recorded scientifically by archaeologists and anthropologists can lend great insight to the modern day relatives of tribes long gone. The materials used, the crafting technique, the exact location of small villages and communities. To be able to give that information back to folks whose ancestors were displaced so long ago is a wonderful feeling, and is one everyone can contribute to. If you find an object you think is potentially a good piece of data, and could lend some insight, call your local university or state office of archaeology. Let an archaeologist know what you’ve seen, where you saw it – even join them on the trek out to point it out exactly! This way, not only is the item getting the respect it deserves (just like your grandpa’s hammer deserves) but we, as archaeologists and members of the concerned and kind public, might be able to glean data that will help descendant populations of the tribes that inhabited the area learn more about their own histories.


We are all humans on this earth together. Showing respect for everyday objects that would otherwise disappear into living rooms and eBay auctions is a simple, vastly important way for us to all help each other out – including those who lived here long, long before us. There is nothing between us but time. Together, let’s treat that time between gently, and with the love and respect it deserves.



Katherine Mueller


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