The oldest thing that has never been lost

Paul Graham asked a question on Twitter recently that I've since spent a lot of time thinking about. He asked "What is the oldest man-made object that's small enough to hold in your hand and that has been continuously in people's possession (i.e. has not been buried and later excavated)?"
Let's look at answers without the qualifiers first.

What's the oldest known man-made object that's small enough to hold in your hand?
In Kenya, in a site called Lomekwi 3, archeologists have found stone tools dating to 3.3 million years ago. That's long before the origin of the genus Homo, let alone Homo Sapiens. These tools were made by Australopithecus, or a similar species. They walked much as we do but had a skull more similar in size and shape to a chimpanzee. They are chips and cores of rock made by banging rocks together in a skillful way.
  Artist's reconstruction from skull of Australopithecus

What's the oldest man-made object that has been continually in people's use?
If you look at a list of the oldest buildings and structures, you will see a date that most of them were discovered, which would rule them out. Anything that was totally buried and had to be excavated is out of consideration. If there are people living in the jungle (or desert), who know only that there are some old ruins in the jungle, should that count? I don't think so. Even the Sphinx was abandoned in 2000 BC and was buried up to its shoulders in sand. People knew about the pyramids since they were built starting in 2630 BC -- they're hard to miss -- but they were just monuments and tombs, not used for anything. One possibility is the Arkadiko Bridge. It was built by the people who built Mycenae, in the 1200s BC, and is still in use to this day.
photo taken a few years before Napoleon's invasion

Now to the real question:
What is the oldest man-made object that's small enough to hold in your hand and that has been continuously in people's possession (i.e. has not been buried and later excavated)?

One thought I had was that it might be a gold coin. If it were in one bank vault or another, we wouldn't be able to tell it had never been buried. You might even be able to trace the hoard through records pretty far back. The first gold coins we're aware of, though, were only made in 600 BC. That's not so old compared to the previous answers.

A Lydian coin found in a dig

Another interesting artifact I came across as I researched this is the Fairy Flag. It was an ancient artifact in the days of Harald Hardrada (who brought it to England under the name "Land Ravager"), that guaranteed victory whenever it was unfurled. It later came into possession of clan MacLeod, who have it at their castle to this day.

What about a jewel? Any particular piece of jewelry might be disassembled, but the jewels themselves would surely be passed on. We know people were trading pearls around 6000 BC. It would be hard to know, though, especially if the jewel were later recut. This led me to think that we should be looking at famous treasures, ones that are important enough to be recorded in history.

This Greek sapphire and diamond ring was found in a dig

The oldest of these I was able to find were the Imperial Regalia of Japan. These three treasures were presented to each Emperor since at least 690 AD. At least, we think so-- there are stories of some of them being lost and later found again, so they might be newer copies, or at least out of human possession. They have never been photographed, only seen by priests and the Emperor. We have some detailed descriptions, though, and they seem appropriate to 800 BC, which would make them already old when presented to the first Emperor of Japan, Jimmu, in 660 BC. 

artist's impression. The real ones are kept hidden.

There are a lot of religious relics that are pretty old. The temple of the tooth of the Buddha (ශ්‍රී දළදා මාළිගාව) from the Kandy kingdom in Sri Lanka is an example. It's hard to know which are fakes, though. A fake can still be old. What matters is when it first shows up in the historical record.

When Octavian conquered Egypt, he looted the treasures of Cleopatra, brought them back to Rome, and paraded them through the streets. Immediately, a fashion in Egyptian styled treasures swept the city. Since people in Rome valued the Egyptian artifacts as art, could some of them have remained intact in the homes of private collectors until eventually donated to a museum? And were any of these artifacts old even in Cleopatra's time?

Ruben's painting of such a victory parade

There are some really old homes in the world. There are homes in Matera, Italy that may have first been dug out of the stone in 10,000 BC, and people are still living in them today. If there were some trivial household item: a door latch or door stop maybe, it could be passed down for more than 3000 years.

When the Forbidden City, the Imperial palaces of China, were taken over by the state, over a million art objects were catalogued. These had been part of the Imperial collection for a long time. There may be some ritual bronzes or jade in that collection from as far back as 2000 BC-- but it is hard for me to research this as most of the information is in Chinese. At any rate, that is a good place to look. The Chinese were digging up and restoring artifacts (i.e. doing "archaeology" of a sort) to use in rituals in 1000 AD-- so some of these items may have been buried and then dug up quite a long time ago. However, among the Freer collection (part of the Smithsonian) there are vessels from the Shang dynasty (1600 - 1000 BC) that based on the patina appear to have never been buried. Since the style of these is copied from pre-bronze ceramic designs, you can get a picture of a continuous tradition of venerating ancestors with ritual vessels that has persisted since the Neolithic in China.


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