Moving Through Time

She loves the mixture of painstaking order and backbreaking work, hauling earth about      like a navvy one minute and dusting the sand away from a shard of bone the next. She      loves the sight of a neat trench, its sides perfectly straight, the soil below exposed in clear layers.                                                                                                             Elly Griffiths A Dying Fall*                                                                                                                                                                                          

 Archaeology, no genealogy, no archaeology, no genealogy. What is she describing…of course archaeology, and I read this and I see genealogy.

As they walk along a path through a forest or across a field, they see an odd-shaped mound of earth, rising out of an otherwise flat landscape. It has meaning. It is a sign post of people who lived long ago, their village, their temple, their grave. And they wonder who they were, what did they leave behind. Slowly, from this moment, they can scrape through layers of earth and see the picture of what existed before. Who lived here, what they did in their lives here. One layer at a time. Through the present to the past.

As we walk along a path in a cemetery, we spot an intriguing gravestone. A sign post of a person who lived long ago, a name, maybe a date or two. Or we listen to a story about a great-great-grandmother, some bit of her history told out of context. And we wonder who she was, who did she leave behind. And we take the time to slowly search for the documents of her life, her past.

Sometimes we can follow the clues from the present, an obituary, an address, a newspaper article. It is hard to access the records of the present. They are private, they are protected, we must search carefully from odd angles to find the shards, the bones in the present, but they are there. And when you find one, you can sweep away layer after layer to another, saving, labeling, filing away each clue, noting it carefully, where it found, who left it, through the layers of time. Through to the past records, and find who lived there, what they did in their life there. One layer at a time. Through the present to the past.

When an archaeologist digs, it is a one-time opportunity to move from the present into the past. Once a bone or a shard is moved the story is gone. It has to be read and recorded before it is touched. Often, this is how we work, from the present to the past. But sometimes we cannot identify a clue from the present, and we have to jump back in time. There we may find a baptismal record, and then, slowly, work forward, adding layers one by one, creating a life as we move forward in time, from the clues we find from that direction. For genealogists, the story does not disappear as it is discovered. It only becomes more clear. Through the present to the past to the present…


* Elly Griffiths, A Dying Fall, Kindle ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013), location 122; downloaded from


3 thoughts on “Moving Through Time

  1. “For genealogists, the story does not disappear as it is discovered. It only becomes more clear.”

    Well, yes and no. Sometimes the story becomes more muddied the more you dig. Occasionally, the genealogist discovers facts that totally challenge established family histories, creating a new truth at odds with the long-accepted fiction of the past. Like the movie Rashomon, the genealogist may imagine multiple scenarios to explain a finding, only to arrive at the frustrating conclusion that what actually happened – and why – will never be known.

    • It will certainly become more muddled, especially if there is already a story, but that should only push us to dig further in all directions. I rarely look at the pre-existing stories as true. I always expect them to be changed or completely discarded. It is the first thing I explain when someone asks me to dig. M

  2. I found your blog today, thanks to a weekend mention on GeneaBloggers. I enjoyed wandering through your posts and getting a feel for what you are doing here, and I appreciate what I’m reading.

    Best wishes as you continue your blogging and research journey. I’m looking forward to reading more!

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