About "Good to Know: A Genealogist's Guide"

A multi-discipline approach to genealogy - A genealogist's way of working generally encompasses several different fields of study at once, thus the more well-rounded your genealogist is concerning various disciplines of study, the better that genealogist will be able to locate your ancestors, and maybe even tell you a little about what they were like.

This blog will discuss what types of things are "Good to Know" for a genealogist or for anyone researching his/her own family tree.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Part V: Archaeology - A Supplement to Genealogy

Most kids want to grow up to be a firefighter, ballerina, veterinarian, actor, pro football player or a pop star.  Me?  I wanted to be an archaeologist.  Well, either that or a historian.  I'm sure Indiana Jones was partially responsible, but my father having been a genealogist likely had something to do with it as well. 

So, what is archaeology?
Archaeology is the
scientific & systematic study of
historic or prehistoric peoples and their cultures by analysis of their artifacts, inscriptions, monuments, and other such remains.

If you're a professional genealogist or are researching your own family tree, you can learn a lot from the field of archaeology.  In my last blog post, I compared genealogy to the field of criminal justice.  Archaeology can also be compared to criminal justice in much the same ways by simply substituting the written records found in genealogy to the artifacts uncovered in archaeology.  In fact, crime scenes are handled in a similar way to how archaeologists handle their dig sites.  At crime scenes, evidence is carefully handled, photographed, bagged and tagged.  That evidence is then analyzed & compared to other evidence on and off the scene in order to discern who handled it, why they handled it, what they used it for & what possible motive existed for the crime.  Artifacts are handled in much the same way with the addition of analyzing that artifact to ascertain how the existence of that artifact contributes to the knowledge of the people and culture of that period and, generally, the exclusion of trying to figure out a possible motive of a criminal.  I say "generally" because there are times when an archaeologist is looking at a possible crime scene or the remains of someone who was a murder victim (or a human sacrifice), even if it happened thousands of years ago.   
There is much to can learn from the field of archaeology in general, but if you are interested in learning more about the time period in which your known ancestors lived, you'll most likely be looking at the subcategory of archaeology called "historical archaeology".

Historical Archaeology is the scientific & systematic study of peoples and their culture from a time in which there was a written record.  The knowledge gained from the study of artifacts from this time is meant to be a supplement to what we have learned from the written record.  Genealogists study of a specific portion of the written record (that which helps us to identify our ancestors), thus historical archaeology is a supplement to genealogy.

In the field of genealogy, anything that can supplement the written record is extremely beneficial.  An example of how archaeologists use the written record that we genealogists know so well is when they excavate a site of a home.  They will look for deeds, probate records, court records & even newspaper articles that may give a description of that home and/or it's contents and help determine when people resided there. 

The written records can help a genealogist locate the site of the home their 
ancestor occupied, but they can also help to visualize the home and it's contents, even if there is no archaeological evidence available to the genealogist.  For instance, you may come across an "Inventory of Goods & Chattels" in a probate record.  This is a written record of the belongings of the deceased, completed by appraisers (usually 2 men) who probably knew the deceased and lived nearby.  If you were to make an inventory of goods and chattels for an estate, how might you go about doing it?  You'd probably walk from room to room writing down the contents: as you complete the list for one room, you'd go to the next, and so on.  Your ancestors' appraisers probably did it the same way.  If this was the case, the order those items were listed can help establish a layout of the home and which objects were likely associated with which rooms.  Knowing which objects were where can help you determine how they were used and which activities were likely to occur in which rooms.  So, even without the actual artifacts, such as the home or your ancestor's belongings, written records can be of great help to aide you in visualizing the home of your ancestor and what their day to day life might have been like.

Of course, there is something to be said about actually seeing artifacts people made and handled 100 or 200 years ago.  Simple day to day items from another time can give you a better understanding about how a family lived and can help you to put yourself in the shoes of your ancestors.  Artifacts can tell you a lot about how someone lived because every artifact had a purpose.  Look around your home for a moment.  Do you see anything that doesn't have a purpose?  Even if that purpose is simply decoration, there's a purpose for each item you have. 

So, what is an artifact?  An artifact is anything made, modified or used by a human culture.  While many think of archaeology as the study of stuff you find buried underground, there are a lot of artifacts above-ground, especially when you're studying more recent historical archaeology.  For instance, there are homes in America still standing (some even occupied presently) that were built and occupied in the 1700s.  It's not just homes, but other structures too.  When I went to high school, I would drive by the Brandywine Creek State Park where a stone wall bordered the road.  It was built by hand without anything but the expertise of how to choose certain shapes of stone for a perfect fit to hold the stones together.  I'd be hard pressed to find someone living today who could build a stone wall that would last for hundreds of years without some kind of mortar or other material to hold the stones together.  There are parts of that wall that have been destroyed in recent years due to cars crashing into it, but due to the expertise involved in building it, a repair job hasn't even been attempted.

What other artifacts are above ground?  Gravestones.  What archaeological 
information can you learn from a gravestone?  Well, there are a myriad of designs & symbols on the gravestones that have been used over the years that can help you to understand the culture and how people thought about death at the time the stone was carved and erected at the grave site.  There's also information on what tools were used to carve the stone, what kind of stone it was & where it came from, what shape it was carved into and even who the carver was.  This is all in addition to what you can learn from the actual written information on the gravestone (e.g. dates, names, epitaphs, etc).  Some consider a gravestone as a historical document and study it as they would any other written record.

Archaeologically speaking, gravestones are a particularly valuable artifact in that one aspect of them is controlled: the date.  Since most people were buried shortly after they died, the date of death on the stone was generally very close to when it was carved.  You may even find mention of the stone carver in probate records of the deceased.  When a certain aspect of an artifact is controlled, it makes for easier evaluation of the other aspects of that artifact.  For example, it helps archaeologists better determine the significance of the designs and symbols, the popularity of a particular design, how that design spread from one region to another and when it was no longer used or replaced with a different design.
Chronology is important in both genealogy and archaeology.  If you don't know when someone was born, it's hard to determine who might have been their son or daughter or which marriage record likely belongs to that person.  If archaeologists don't know when a building was built or occupied, it's virtually impossible to develop a meaningful analysis of what it means to find certain artifacts there.  Artifacts have a particular time period and cultural significance attached to them based on when and where they were invented and distributed, where they were unearthed, what people owned them & the waning and waxing popularity of the item over various regions.  Knowing what time period they were used and by which people within that society, has a profound effect on what it means to find it at a particular site.

Archaeologists use dating techniques to guide them in their analysis. 
Genealogists need dates just as much as archaeologists do.  If a genealogist doesn't have a date of birth, he might say a person was "born by" or "born before", using the earliest date from the records as a guide.  Archaeologists use "terminus ante quem" (the date before which) and "terminus post quem" (the date after which) when analyzing the artifacts found on site.  If you have a knowledge of when certain types of artifacts were invented or used in any specific region, it helps determine how one might date a site.  For instance, you might find ceramics which had a specific technique used for glazing that wasn't invented until the 1770s on a site.  This would mean that site was likely occupied into the 1770s.  Archaeologists review all the artifacts found at a site to determine the latest a person likely inhabited that area. 

Knowing more about the culture or what person may have occupied that home, helps as well.  The wealthier families were more likely to have what was "in fashion" at the time because they could afford the higher cost, while, at the same time, the less economically fortunate could only afford what was in fashion years earlier.  Using the same example of ceramics from the 1770s, the wealthier family probably had them when they were brand new while the poorer families likely acquired them long after they first appeared on the market.  Knowing which family occupied that home can help an archaeologist date the site.

Both archaeologists & genealogists are concerned about the ability of later researchers being able to look at and review their research with ease. Archaeologists use what is called a "datum point" (a fixed location near the site that is unlikely to disappear over the years) so later researchers can locate the same area they excavated.  Genealogists are careful to use source citations, documenting what sources they used so each piece of data can be easily located by a later researcher.  In this way, we find that archaeologists and genealogists are not just focused on the past, but they have a profound respect for the future of research in their respective fields.

Architecture is also studied by archaelogists.  Do you live in a house?  Does your house have a front porch?  As Deetz states in his book, "In Small Things Forgotten" (p.231), "It was a place to sit and swing, make ice cream, pick a tune ot two, and even store a broken wringer washing machine, and we owe it all to those anonymous people who brought it from West Africa".  Europeans didn't build their homes with porches, yet nowadays, millions of homes across the country have a front porch.  They were first seen in America on slave cabins and slowly spread throughout the country.  In this way, we can see how one culture had an influence on another.  Archaeologists see cultural influences in other artifacts as well.  Since many dates in historical archaeology are known as to when one culture came into contact with another, these influences, marked by what types of artifacts were found on site, can help to date the occupation of homes being excavated.

You may have an artifact in your own home: something handed down from generation to generation which can lend itself to a better understanding of the people & culture of the time.  Perhaps you have a pocket watch from a gg-grandfather or an old painting of your ancestor hanging on your wall.  Technically, those are also artifacts.

Although I doubt you'll be digging up the skeletal remains of your ancestors, there is an amazing amount of information that can be acquired from examining the bones of an individual.  You can learn the more obvious, such as their gender, age and, in some cases, what killed them.  There's a reason doctors use x-rays to look at your bones.  Injuries, diseases and other conditions can be discovered by looking at the bones.  You can even see old injuries someone may have had during their lifetime that have healed, or were healing at the time of death.  Some diseases can give a clue as to if a society or individual had contact with other societies.  [Note: If you're interested in learning about what happened when two or more societies interacted with one another in history, which society suffered from that contact and why, I highly recommend the book "Guns, Germs & Steel" by Jared Diamond.]

With testing techniques performed on the bones that are now available, you can even tell if they were likely from the same area where they were buried or what their diet was.  Through examination of the burial, you can learn what that culture's views on death were by how they were buried, where they were buried, the position of the body, and what items were buried with them.  You may not be digging up an ancestor to find out these things, but archaeologists have found the skeletal remains of thousands of individuals over the years.  They may have already examined the remains of someone from the same time and region as your ancestor.
In conclusion, there is a strong relationship between the written record and the artifacts left behind by our ancestors.  Studying one or the other doesn't come close to what you can learn from combining the two.  In my last blog post, I talked about how getting to know someone in another occupation could be beneficial to both, using the field of criminal justice as an example.  Genealogists would also greatly benefit from the knowledge archaeologists have acquired from studying artifacts that have been left behind and archaeologists can benefit from the knowledge genealogists have of the written record.

If you're a genealogist, or researching your own family tree, I would highly suggest visiting an archaeological dig, and if you can find a society, college or other group that will let you, see if you can participate in a dig or just observe and ask questions. 
Archaeology Links:
The Society for Historical Archaeology
The Process of Archaeology via Mississippi Valley Archaeology Center
Society for American Archaeology
Center for the Study of Architecture

Books on Archaeology and Related Topics:
"In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life" by James Deetz (an American classic & a great intro to the field)

"A Guide to the Artifacts of Colonial America" by Ivor Noel Hume
"Doing Historical Archaeology: Exercises Using Documentary, Oral, and Material Evidence" by Russell J. Barber
"Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America 1650-1800" by Leland Ferguson
"Jamestown: The Buried Truth" by William M. Kelso
"Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619-1864" by James Deetz
"Time Detectives: How Archaeologists Use Technology to Recapture the Past" by Brian Fagan
"Here Lies Virginia: An Archaeologist's View of Colonial Life and History" by Ivor Noel Hume
"Martin's Hundred: The Discovery of a Lost Colonial Virginia Settlement" by Ivor Noel Hume
"The Practical Archaeologist: How We Know What We Know about the Past" by Jane McIntosh
"The Archaeology of Disease" by Charlotte Roberts & Keith Manchester
"Guns, Germs & Steel" by Jared Diamond

Archaeology & Artifacts on Television:
"Antiques Roadshow" on PBS
"Pawn Stars" on History Channel
"Ancient Discoveries" on History Channel
"American Pickers" on History Channel
"Bone Detectives" on Discovery Channel (focus on ancient human remains) [Reruns on Green Channel]
"The Naked Archaeologist" on History International Channel (focus on Biblical archaeology)
"Skeleton Stories" on Discovery Health Channel (focus on forensics)
"Guns, Germs & Steel" on PBS
There are also occasional specials on channels such as PBS, History Channel, History International, Discovery Channel, etc.