Oldest artifact passed down through a family
February 23, 2014 7:44 AM   Subscribe

What is the oldest family heirloom still in possession of the family, not a museum?

On Reddit, some people have posted things like this, a 1600-year-old painting passed down from the time of the Crusades:


In another instance, someone was in possession of a rare Viking sword. They had received it as a family heirloom.

Is there someone out there who has the oldest instance of such an heirloom?
posted by candasartan to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
One could argue that some of the actual gems in the British Crown Jewels might count, as they are technically the possession of the legal entity that is the Crown (i.e. the family, ish).

Would you consider natural resources to be heirlooms? There are olive and frankincense trees in the Middle East that (reportedly) have been harvested by the same families since the time of Christ. (No citation; the frankincense thing ISTR learning from the Christmas episode of Heston's Feasts).
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:55 AM on February 23, 2014

Following on the theme of harvesting, there are salt flats in Brittany that are harvested for salt by specific families and have been so for a long time (not sure if the time scale fits what you're looking for, but it's an avenue to explore).

You probably can't throw a brick in Windsor Castle without hitting some artifact several hundred years old. Again, not sure if you'd consider that an heirloom, and actual palaces might count as museums for your purposes.

I suppose for public/recorded information on this sort of thing you want to look at old aristocratic families as being most likely to have (relatively) unbroken lines of family inheritance, and probably better documentation of provenance. Perusing catalogues for antique auctions might also give you some leads, as families sell off old treasures.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 8:16 AM on February 23, 2014

According to this article, the Nuseibeh family have had the key to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in their possession for more than 1,300 years.
posted by AwkwardPause at 8:25 AM on February 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

If this counts, the Japanese Imperial Regalia have been in the possession of the Japanese Imperial family since at least 690 AD, and are said to have been given to the founder of the line, the sun goddess Amaterasu, from whom the family is said to be descended. They consist of a sword, a mirror and a jewel. The former two are apparently at various shrines and the latter at the imperial palace. They are only brought out at each emperor's enthronement, where they are only (if at all) seen by the priests and the emperor, with other people at the most getting a glimpse of the packages they are wrapped ....
posted by runincircles at 8:32 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The first Crusade was from 1096 to 1099, so anything from that time could not be 1600 years old.
posted by zadcat at 8:46 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

The Fairy Flag has been held by the MacLeod clan of Scotland (or, rather, a man from whom the clan descended) since at least the 11th century, and the clan believes it dates from the 4th to 7th century.
posted by something something at 9:05 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Does a business count? I doubt it's the original building, but a family in Japan has run an inn in one location since the 8th century.

misc notes:

zadcat, without commenting on whether the OP's story in that reddit thread is true, s/he claims in the thread that the piece was aquired by the family during the crusades but dates from before them.

I have a suspicion that heirlooms of the type you're asking about are held for so long precisely because few people outside the family know of their existence...
posted by Wretch729 at 9:47 AM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Not a single family, but the village of Abbots Bromley performs a dance annually, using reindeer or elk horns & skulls, which have been carbon dated at about 1100 years old. The horns have historically been kept in the village church, not sure if they've started locking them up.
posted by mr vino at 10:40 AM on February 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

These are all great answers. Thank you! I can't help but wonder if there is someone who has something that was passed down for even longer--a rock, even. Humans have been around a very long time. It's hard to believe the oldest heirloom is only around 1,500 years old. The salt flats of Brittany are probably a lot older, though. I like that answer.
posted by candasartan at 2:57 PM on February 23, 2014

I can't help but wonder if there is someone who has something that was passed down for even longer--a rock, even. Humans have been around a very long time. It's hard to believe the oldest heirloom is only around 1,500 years old.

Setting aside businesses, access to/use of the salt flats, etc and limiting this to physical objects—unless the article under consideration is held by a royal family, Scottish clan, or [other well-documented family histories that I'm not aware of/can't recall at the moment], I would be highly skeptical of the authenticity of anything that goes back more than 3-4 generations. I'm not saying that older legit artifacts don't exist—just noting that people tend to play fast and loose with facts when talking about their family history. (Would you like to hear about how my family descends from brothers who escaped the Glencoe massacre, moved to Ireland and changed their name to avoid further run-ins with those dastardly Campbells?)

There is a message board on Ancestry.com re the oldest artifact passed down through a family—it's a subcategory under "Folklore, Legends & Family Stories".
posted by she's not there at 5:43 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

The Nawarla Gabarnmung rock shelter is a partly excavated, partly built structure traditionally owned by the Buyhmi clan of the Jawoyn on the south-west Arnhem land plateau.

It's likely at least 45000-48000 years old, and has never had to be "rediscovered" as suggested in either the Wikipedia link or early in the Cosmos article above.

Elders of the Buyhmi such as Margaret Katherine have always known it's there, always had a name for it, and always considered it theirs.

Apart from simple cooking fire charcoal at the lowest strata, buried fragments of paintings and other objects (eg a shaped stone axe) in the shelter that can be dated have been dated back to 28-35000 years.

If you can track it down, Spirits in the Stone is an awesome documentary about the shelter, Margaret Katherine, and her decision to allow archaeological excavation.
posted by Ahab at 6:22 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Came back to add a link to What's the oldest heirloom you own, or have heard of anyone owning? from straightdope.com (this is what I was looking for when I found the ancestry.com board).

FWIW, I would call items in a 45,000 year old archaeological dig and the 1100 year old reindeer/elk horns used by the village "historical artifacts". They certainly aren't "passed down through the family" and don't fit under "heirlooms" in the traditional sense—I assume the same is true re the legal use of the word.
posted by she's not there at 8:24 PM on February 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

« Older What was this folk radio show I heard?   |   100% cotton underWHERE? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.