Friday, June 7, 2013

Heirloom Archaeology: The Yard Edition

In keeping with my continuing study of my aunt and uncle's Florida house, I've decided to start documenting some of the artifacts residing here. Indeed, here at the ancestral homestead one is surrounded by artifacts and heirlooms of a wide variety. Almost 60 years of habitation by the same family have resulted in an interesting conglomeration of objects. For (me) an archaeologist and lover of stories, it’s an ideal and happy situation, especially since its my family. Many of these artifacts would not be considered ‘heirlooms’ in the usual sense of the word. The term more often refers to  proudly displayed items that are ‘worth’ something, if not because of cost, than because of an aura endowed by story or legend. But I'll be calling my little project heirloom archaeology regardless.
In archaeological terms, 'heirloom' can be used to imply simply those objects “maintaining and reifying ties with the past” (D. H. Thomas 1976, 128). Commonly, archaeologists discuss heirlooms in terms of ancient chieftons and prestige. For example, in 1999 Lillios posited that “in chiefdoms, heirlooms serve to objectify memories and histories, acting as mnemonics to remind the living of their link to a distant, ancestral past. And because not all the living have equal access to that ancestral past, as heirlooms are typically valued objects that are not available or equally accessible to all members of a community, the possession, display, and transmission of heirlooms also differentiate the living and help to reify inherited social differences” (Lillios 1999, 236). That is, heirlooms are interesting because of their significance in society. In their Archaeologies of Memory, Alcock and Van Dyke likewise stress social memory.

These aren’t the heirlooms I’m interested in. Rather, I’m interested in 'memorable' objects  in a familial and domestic setting that are significant to the immediate inhabitants due to their life history and their link to the past, only. Not because of the social significance that they acquire outside of the domestic sphere. For the purposes of this blog, heirloom archaeology is a mash-up of familial archaeology and domestic archaeology on the micro scale.
Let’s start with this strange object that serves as part of the garden sculpture here. To me, it’s a mystery. Mechanical people might recognize it, however, as an engine head. Not just any engine head, but the engine head of the 1973 Volkswagon Bus that carried the Kelly family (my aunt, uncle, and 3 cousins) all over the country on camping trips, from Florida to Yellowstone. At some point, the engine broke, was fixed, broke again, and limped its way through the 70s and into the 80s. That is, it carried the family until 1981, when it finally gave up the ghost. That’s when it got turned into a piece of garden sculpture, rewarded for its loyalty in a spot of honor by the porch (instead of being thrown out like the engine from the 1965 Pontiac).
Another example is this object holding up the boat. Tools tend to be objects passed down from parents to children, with the result that many people have old-timey gear sitting around their garage or house, looking vintage and hip but usually serving no other purpose. This piece, however, is actually still at work. We can trace it to the Depression and  the 1930s, when Charlie Lloyd Kelly lived in Center, Mississippi with his Irish family (early settlers of Miss., arriving in the 1830s). C.J. used this mechanical jack until he died and it was passed down to his son, my Uncle Jim (Kelly). Today you can observe the depression-era jack still in use, slightly jerry-rigged, here in southern Florida.

These are a special kind of heirloom, then. Of little monetary value, these two artifacts make up the domestic material culture of the household. Ask the family about them, and you'll start a flood of talking, story-telling, reminiscing, and oral history. They're ugly and unremarkable and don't draw the eye. Yet, they're certainly significant links to the past that are part of the present life of the family home.

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