A meeting of Archaeology and Genealogy: Part 2

It is very satisfying when a blog post comes together unexpectedly. All of a sudden, something sparks an idea and off you go! I had not intended to write a second instalment about the meeting of Archaeology and Genealogy, but here it is!

The beginning of an idea

The first part of this idea explored the presentations of the Society of Antiquaries Conference: Seals and the People of Britain. Out of all of the presentations, of most interest to me was Helen Geake’s Women and their Seals. A discussion of the seals catalogued by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, Helen Geake’s presentation introduced me to a further aspect of Medieval history and one that may be useful for research into Medieval ancestors. This post is a continuation of the idea of Genealogy working together with other disciplines, but this time in the area of burials.

Burials, but a different approach?

Burials are of course events that genealogists are very familiar with. They are a fundamental event that becomes even more so before the introduction of Civil Registration in 1837. Therefore, they are nothing new to genealogists and you may wonder what more I can say about them in this post?

The point I hope to make, is how we can improve our work in genealogy by considering separate, disparate aspects of research all together. The end result could then be a better understanding of not only our ancestors, but of their way of life and how they understood their world. This is something that we can then pass on to our clients, to help them better understand their own ancestors. Additionally, we might just realise how much we can learn from other historically based disciplines and how much they can learn from us.

Photo by Meta Zahren on Unsplash.

Another meeting of Archaeology and Genealogy

Earlier this month, I was lucky to get tickets to Professor Alice Roberts’ latest tour, discussing her book ‘Ancestors.’[1] I am sure you can understand the appeal for a genealogist of a title like that! I am by no means an archaeologist, but I have always found that area of historical research fascinating. In some ways, it is the polar opposite to genealogy- we examine documentary records to research our ancestors and archaeologists use objects to do the same. If you have ever watched programs like Time Team, you will know that the two are not always mutually exclusive either. Digs that focussed upon uncovering buildings or structures within written history often used documentary records to aid the investigation (where possible).

So naturally, I jumped at the chance to hear Alice Roberts speak. As you may expect from someone with her experience, the presentation was engaging and accessible, especially for those of us who aren’t so familiar with the archaeological world. I am still in the process of reading the book, but the presentation dealt with some of the subjects included within. These subjects are seven specific burials and more specifically, what they can tell us about our ancestors. Whether that is what the bones can tell us, what the grave goods can tell us, or what the DNA can tell us. The latter reminded me of Adam Rutherford’s A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived,[2] which also goes to show how all of these different disciplines are interlinked; DNA research, Archaeology, Anthropology, Historical research in general and of course, Genealogy. We simply focus on different facets of the same entity.

What can genealogists learn from other disciplines?

Whilst Alice Roberts focuses upon burials from pre-history in ‘Ancestors’ (as a Somerset person, ‘Cheddar Man’ is of great interest) it got me thinking about how genealogists consider burials. As I mentioned above, we are used to using written burial records, which do not always contain a great deal of information. We then have to assess these in relation to other records to ascertain the likelihood that the record pertains to the person we are looking for. But what other techniques do we use, or even could we use?

Obviously, as genealogists we are not going to go around digging up graves. Most of us would not have the requisite skill and the ethics surrounding excavation is a big consideration and best left to the professionals! So, I am not suggesting that we dig up our ancestors, but the next best thing for us are grave memorials. We all know that in general, the wealthier the person, the more likely it is for them to have a headstone or some other memorial. But what do we do with a memorial if we find one (the issue of transcriptions surviving where the original memorial has not, is something to discuss another day)?

What else can burials tell us?

Dutifully, we gather the name, the age and place of death and burial, along with the names and information of any other family members recorded. But do we always go further than that? Do we think about the way in which information is recorded or whether it looks particularly intricate for instance? What about the location of the burial or memorial, or even the location of the church/graveyard it is in? On the other hand, what about the lack of a memorial? Small things such as this may indicate a particular religious persuasion, the level of wealth and status or perhaps even how the subject was thought of by the people left behind. A particular inscription (biblical or otherwise) may suggest that the person was well loved or thought of. On the other hand, the subject may have chosen the inscription themselves. In some cases we may never know, but does this show pragmatism or narcissism?!

A meeting of Arch. and Genea. Part 2_Shersca Genealogy_Chelmorton graves
A view of some of the ornate looking memorials in Chelmorton churchyard. © 2021 Shersca Genealogy.

I have spoken about my summer trip to Derbyshire a lot in my last few posts (it obviously had an impact), and I am reminded of this again. Chelmorton (the village I was staying in), of course had its own church surrounded by graves. I happened to notice the ornate nature of many of the headstones- indeed they were certainly more ornate than many I have seen on my trips around Somerset graveyards. But what does this mean? Does it mean that those being buried in Chelmorton were wealthier? Or is it an example of a tradition of using more ornate headstones in that particular area? Some more research would be needed to understand the differences here and why they may have come about. It does indicate though that yet another aspect beyond collecting family information is that of wider societal views and trends.

A meeting of more than archaeology and genealogy

So, whereas Alice Roberts is largely interested in pre-history, the techniques of looking at more than just the ‘bones’ as it were, is still applicable to genealogy and family history. Perhaps there are sources that historians and archaeologists use that genealogists could also utilise (and vice versa)? Future research would be needed to fully explore this, but one example is the Portable Antiquities Scheme that I mentioned earlier. Not only does it contain seals (of various dates and materials), but coins, jewellery, vessels of different purposes and much more. This can all help us to understand the world of our ancestors. As Alice Roberts uses bones and grave goods, we can use documents, memorials, objects and history to help in our understanding.

We may be purveyors of family trees, but really we are also historians and social ones to some extent too. Without the ‘why’ surrounding the names and the dates, there is not as much meaning. What many people enjoy are the stories, and without investigating the wider background, the stories of our ancestors are left a little bare. There is so much more that cross-disciplinary work can tell us, whether that is local/social history, archaeology or DNA research.

© 2021 Shersca Genealogy.

[1] Roberts, Professor Alice. (2021) Ancestors: The Prehistory of Britain in Seven Burials. London: Simon & Schuster.

[2] Rutherford, Adam. (2017) A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived: The Stories in our Genes. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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