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What is a Family Artifact?

Have you been thinking about what types of artifacts your family might have? In this article, learn what a family artifact is, and what your family might have that counts as an artifact.

What is a Family Artifact

We typically hear the word “artifact” used to describe a historical object that is man-made. Historians examine artifacts in order to better understand the culture of the humans who made them.

As it turns out, families can have artifacts, too. As family history researchers, we can form a deeper understanding and connection with our ancestors through the collection, preservation, and study of our family’s artifacts.

What does family artifact mean?

A family artifact is typically a physical item that has special value to your family because it belonged to someone who is no longer living, was given to you by a parent or grandparent, or tells an important story about someone in your family. Sometimes family artifacts are old and have been passed down for many generations, and other times they are newer items.

Family artifacts don’t have to be old, dusty things that sit in a box unseen. In fact, some of the best family artifacts are useful items, such as small pieces of furniture, tools, jewelry, or other item that is used regularly, which keeps the family story alive.

Is a family artifact the same as a family heirloom?

Family heirlooms are usually defined as family history artifacts that have a significant monetary value. This means that heirlooms have an economic value outside of the sentimental value to the family.

Heirlooms can often include things that we might not typically include in a list of artifacts, such as real estate, intellectual property, a business, and nobility titles, among other less common examples.

Does a family artifact have to be old?

A family artifact does not need to be very old in order to be included as an important item in your family’s history. Most families have at least something that they consider to be an artifact, even if they don’t realize it.

The only requirement that makes an item a family history artifact is that it has relevance to an important event or person in your family. For example, a military medal earned by a grandparent, a watch given to your father by his father, your grandmother’s knitting needles, or your mother’s well-worn hymn book, are some examples of family artifacts that are not very old, yet might have important value.

The stories associated with these items could be the dramatic story about how the medal was earned or how your grandfather earned the money to buy his first nice watch. The knitting needles might represent how our grandmother knitted something for every single new baby born into the very large family, and the the hymn book can provide insight into your family’s cultural heritage.

Of course, when we do have very old things that have been passed down in our family, they do seem especially valuable. The primary reason that they are special to us is that the ancestor is no longer with us and can no longer tell us their story in person.

The artifact then becomes a vessel for their story, or stories. Newer artifacts, even items that belonged to us, can become family artifacts if we teach our children the stories associated with them.

Does a family artifact have to be valuable?

No, a family artifact does not have to be valuable in order for it to be considered a family history artifact. The only requirement is that it carry historical important about you or your ancestors and that it means something to someone in your family.

Some items that have been passed down in a family are very valuable, or at least moderately valuable, and these items would be considered to be family heirlooms and artifacts.

Why are family artifacts important?

Family history artifacts or relics are often considered to be the most valuable family possessions, even if the artifacts themselves do not have a high monetary value. These items can provide a connection to ancestors, help a family maintain traditions, help a family form its identity and values, provide additional historical context to family tree researchers.

Connection to ancestors

Family artifacts can provide a connection to recent and distant ancestors who came from another place and time. Through the stories related through these items passed down through the generations, family members can have something tangible to connect them to the past.

While it isn’t the story for every family, I know that many US families have roots in many parts of the country, especially if we go back a few generations. For example, many immigrants to the United States traditionally settled in east coast states, and then gradually migrated west over the next few generations.

About 27% of the people who live in the United States are immigrants or the children of at least one parent who immigrated to the US. Among those adults who were born in the United States, as many as 30% currently live outside of their home state.

Those Americans who live where they were born most likely don’t live where their all of their grandparents were born, which means that they have extended relatives in other parts of the country. When this is the case, they might not know many of these relatives personally.

Family artifacts can help us understand our ancestors’ journeys as they made it from one place to the next, which helps us understand exactly how we came to be.

Maintain family traditions

Family artifacts and heirlooms can be an important way to maintain family traditions. Some examples of family artifact becoming a part of a family tradition or custom might be a Christmas tree ornament that has been passed down through the generations, a fishing pole that belonged to Grandpa, or an accessory (such as a bridal veil) that is used by several generations of women in the same family.

Going back as far as my great-great-great grandparents in my paternal grandmother’s family, camping was a cherished pastime. While I don’t have any camping artifacts that belonged to my 3rd great-grandfather (born in 1844), I do have and use an old camping stove and coffee pot that belonged to his granddaughter, my great-grandmother.

It’s a great way to keep the tradition alive and share those stories with other members of the family.

What is an example of a family artifact?

Almost anything can be a family artifact. Some specific examples include, old photographs or photo albums, awards, letters, documents, jewelry, artwork, “kick-knacks”, souvenirs, a family home, diaries and journals, furniture, recipes or cookbooks, quilts and other handmade textiles, old clothing, shoes, and musical instruments.

Literally anything can become a family artifact. It doesn’t matter whether the item has any monetary value at all.

All that matters is that the item has meaning to you and your family in relation to your family history, including your own personal history, which you can help document.

What if your family doesn’t have any artifacts?

If you feel that your family does not have any belongings that you perceive to be an artifact, I would encourage you to speak to your oldest living relatives. Ask them questions about their life, including their childhood, and inquire about their parents and grandparents.

You might learn from your relatives that there are items that have been passed down to various relatives by your ancestors, even if it was only from a grandparent or a great-grandparent. While you might not have these items in your possession, you might be able to learn about them, speak with the person who does have them, and maybe even get permission to take a few photographs for your own family records.

If you discover during your efforts that your family has not been able to maintain artifacts over the past few generations, whether due to immigrating to a new country or any number of other reasons, you can designate a few special items that you or your parents have as family artifacts and work to preserve them for the next generation.

The best way to let our children know which of our belongings are most important to our family history is to take the opportunity to explain it to them, especially if any questions about ancestry, genealogy, or family history come up during conversations.

It could be something as simple as a pair of shoes that our father wore when he first came to the United States, our mother’s wedding ring, a coffee cup, a gravy dish, or even a prized spatula.

We won’t be able to know which of our own belongings will remind our children and grandchildren of us and our own personal stories, but we can be sure that at least a few things will be kept and used, and possibly preserved, as a family artifact.


I hope that this article has helped you understand what a family history artifact is, why they are important, and how you can spot items that may have been passed down from your ancestors that are artifacts of your family’s unique history.

If you have any questions about something that you read in this post, or if you would like to share a story about one of your family’s interesting artifacts, I would love to hear from you in the discussion below.

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