Artefact Biography as an Approach to Material Culture

1 January 2018

Artifact biographies are an approach to material culture that highlights the shifting meanings of artifacts over time. Artifact biographies give the object meaning, functionality, symbolism and identify cultural progression (Waller-Cotterhill, C. Artefact Biographies). It is basically the life of artifacts that were in the past, and which are still being circulated around for generations to come. As the artifacts get older the more chapters and values are added to the story of it over time (ARA1001 module handbook: p 17). These are inheritances we receive from our grandparents. Inheritances are not always of monetary value, but it also has a story behind each and every artifact. Writing a biography helps you uncover the hidden stories and values of artifacts. According to Joy (2009), there are two aspects of writing the biography of an object. The first method is called ‘Life History’, where you look into the history of artifacts as one. The second method is called ‘Biographical’, where you look into an artifact of the geographical and chronological order (Joy 2009). I will be using the ‘Biographical’ method in this writing, to bring forth the life of an object, in this artifact biography.

Every family has its fair share of family heirlooms, which has been passed down from generation to generation. In my family, I possess three family heirlooms – a hairpiece, a set of ancestral jewelry and a ring, passed down by my Grandma Alice, Grandma Anita, and my grandpa, respectively.
I choose to tell you the story and value of the beautiful hair piece left by my Grandma Alice – my father’s mother.

My grandma, Alice Mariah is British. She was the only daughter of one of the Governors’ appointed to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) when Ceylon was under the British. Around this time, my great grandpa was a Chieftain of three villages, who ruled it with a firm hand. He also happened to have an unmarried son (my grandpa). The British Governor (also my great grandpa), who wanted to form an alliance with the Chieftain, arranged a marriage between his daughter (my grandma) and the unmarried son of the Chieftain. The Governor’s daughter, Alice Mariah, arrived at Ceylon three months before the wedding. According to grandma, it was love at first sight. She got to know his parents and adjusted to the culture before the wedding. She brought with her a beautiful Silver hairpiece (see Fig. 1), given to her by her mother – who received it from her mother-in-law, Alexandra- for she was going away to an unknown land forever.

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