How many artifacts do you have in your possession? None? Think again. Perhaps you have an admittance ticket from the time your grandfather took you and your siblings to Sea World in 1968. Or a baby spoon, once silver and now black, stuffed in a drawer beneath scissors, scotch tape, and glue . . . or maybe a pair of yellowing elbow-length gloves tucked deep in your lingerie drawer?

All of the above—the pair of gloves, the spoon, and the ticket—are artifacts.

An Artifact Defined

The Oxford English Dictionary defines artifact as “(a)n object made or modified by human workmanship, as opposed to one formed by natural processes.” A second definition reflects an archaeological perspective, describing artifacts as “excavated object(s) that show characteristic signs of human workmanship or use.”

Cultural anthropology presents a third perspective, more in line with our approach to writing about artifacts. Through artifacts, cultural anthropologists discover more about the everyday lives of people and their social and cultural milieu.

As family history writers, many of us research the origin of our artifacts and collect the “hard facts” about them, but what we really want to uncover are the meanings and stories our ancestors associated with them. When we do so, we learn more about our ancestors and their daily lives. Like a cultural anthropologist, we cannot separate our artifacts from the people who created and/or used them.

At History Echoes, we view all family memorabilia as artifacts. An artifact needn’t be a family heirloom or especially old. It might just be a personal item that means something important to you. Whatever it is, writing about it will lead to new understandings—about the item, your family, and yourself. The power these inanimate objects have to hold meaning is truly surprising!

It’s not what you find, it’s what you find out.

                         David Hurst Thoma, Archaeology, SSA.org

Through the exercises and ideas in this series, we believe you will find true stories worth telling in your family artifacts.

What Big Ideas Lie Hidden in Your Artifact?

Smithsonian Education explains that artifacts are “passageways into history.” These passageways can help us gain insight into the lives of our family members and ancestors—even ourselves. Here are a few ways the Smithsonian suggests artifacts “work” in our lives (see Lubar and Kendrick, Looking at Artifacts. Thinking about History“):

  • Artifacts tell their own stories.
  • Artifacts connect people.
  • Artifacts mean many things.
  • Artifacts capture moments.
  • Artifacts reflect changes.
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Artifact Meaning Exercise

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Artifact Meaning Exercise

The following bubble map exercise will help you gather and stimulate new thoughts about your artifact and its hidden messages. Take a moment to look through the bulleted list above with your artifact in mind.

Does your artifact contain a story or two? Connect the lives of family members, either in the past, present, or both? Symbolize ideas? Capture a snapshot in time? Reflect progress, initiations, transitions, or transformations?

Using the bubble map structure below, note the memories, meanings, and ideas you have attached to your artifact in the empty bubbles. For example, if my artifact is a trophy, I might see it as a symbol of accomplishment and a strong work ethic. So, branching off from the “symbol of ideas or values,” I would fill the two blank bubbles with “accomplishment” and “work ethic.”

When you run out of ideas or examples for a concept, just move onto the next. There is no one right way to fill out the bubble map!

Discovering the Stories in Your Family Artifact
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Artifact Origin Exercise

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Artifact Origin Exercise

Now that you have noted a few ideas about your artifact, prepare to bring your artifact into sharper focus through its physical and historical reality. First, learn more about the history of your artifact. Use the prompts below to get started. While you are writing, keep a side list of research questions that arise.

  • Where did the artifact itself originate?
    • Geographic Location/s
    • Manufactured
    • Manmade
    • Creative or artistic
  • What was the original purpose or use of the artifact?
  • How, where, and by what means did the original owner obtain the artifact?
  • Trace the artifact’s journey. Have people besides you possessed the artifact? Who? When? Where? One fun way to approach this question is to draw a map or storyboard the artifact’s journey.
  • How did you obtain the artifact?
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Focused Free Writing Exercise

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Focused Free Writing Exercise

After you have as many facts in place as you can, it is time to explore the meanings and stories you discovered more thoroughly. This is a shift to a more abstract frame of mind.

Think about why this item is important to you and your family members. Take a few minutes to think about your family’s conversations and stories around this artifact as well as your own private thoughts.

Focused Free Writing Prompt:  What does your artifact represent or mean to you?

Write what first comes to mind in response to this question and then keep writing, even if you take what seems like a detour. Just flow with it. Usually, 8 -10 minutes of non-stop writing will suffice. However, if you latch onto an idea you want to explore further, keep writing.

The purpose of the focused free write is to both discover and capture the meaning and emotion you attach to this artifact. A free write is a prose-style, free flow of thought captured in writing. Think of it as funneling your stream-of-consciousness from your brain to paper.

Meanings in artifacts are made not just in their own history, but beyond them, in the thoughts and conversations that flow around the objects.

Lubar and Kendrick, “Looking at Artifacts. Thinking about History”

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Genre Selection Exercise

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Selecting A Genre For Writing About Your Artifact

Next, with the free write you just wrote in mind, complete the exercise below. It’s designed to help you determine your purpose and audience for the piece which, in turn, will help you choose a specific genre to frame it. For more about family history writing genres, please see our post “Choose a Genre to Frame Your Topic.”

Quickly fill out the sentence frames below with your family artifact as your topical focus. (Don’t read ahead, please!)

A. I want to explain ___ about ___ to current and future family members because ___.

B. I want to tell the story of ___ to current and future family members because ___.

C. I want to write about ___ so I can learn more about ___.

Which of the statements above was easiest for you to fill out, A, B or C? Now, using the “genre key” below, select a genre to meet your purpose.

Key for the Genre Sentence Frame Exercise:

If “A” resonates more, consider writing a personal essay or including an artifact-focused vignette within a longer biographical essay.

If “B” resonates more, consider writing a vignette about your artifact or even a full narrative of its journey from past to present.

If “C” resonates more, consider writing a personal essay for yourself so that you might learn and understand more about the artifact or the person associated with it. You may or may not want to write a version of it to share.

If all the sentence frames were relatively easily to fill out, you might want to write a mixed genre piece. Even when you start with one genre, it is common to mix in other genres as supporting content.

If we can get people interested in history by using intriguing and entrancing objects as bait, that’s good.

Dr. Richard Kurin of the Smithsonian, quoted in the New York Times

Next Steps

Next, think about how you might you use your family artifact in your family history writing and projects. Below are some ideas to consider:

  • Start writing a personal essay about what the object means to you.
  • Begin writing a story about your artifact’s journey through the generations.

  • Write a factual description of your artifact and include it as a brief sidebar to the genealogical biographical sketch of its owner.

  • Collect your family’s most important artifacts into a photographic print or digital book.

We’d love to hear your own ideas and hope you’ll share them in the comments.

Cynthia is a twenty-year plus teaching veteran with expertise in teaching writing, literature, and research to students of all ages. In addition to her passion for teaching, Dr. Kiefer is an American history buff, artifact aficionado, and historical fiction writer and researcher.

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