Fantasy Ancestors – Thursday Thoughts

Photograph of ethereal shapes accompanying the historytrace Thursday Thoughts blogpost "Fantasy Ancestors". Image copyright: www.freeimages.com / Dora Mitsonia.We all dream of finding a closet moneybags hiding in some dark recess of our family tree don’t we? Some ancestral avenues do indeed lead to gold but most sadly do not. My daughter hopes our family has misplaced an ancestral chain of castles in the Scottish Highlands somewhere.

Whether in jest or completely unintentionally we do sometimes let our imaginations go a little and we have to guard against concocting fantasy ancestors out of the remnant records of their lives. So too, we have to be careful about the way in which we weave together our narratives of the ancestors lives from the historical evidence we have to hand.

This has been brought home to me recently whilst listening to Professor Mary Beard reflecting on the results of innovative research carried out on the body casts of the victims of Pompeii who were buried by pyroclastic flows from nearby Vesuvius in 79 AD when the volcano erupted. Archaeologists used modern CT and X-Ray scanning technology coupled with Dental Anthropology and Osteoarchaeology. As a result some hypotheses formed over time regarding the identity, age and provenance of the victims have been quickly dispelled.

In some of her closing comments Professor Beard said: “We may have intruded on their peace a bit, but I think that we owe it to them, to help them tell their true story. Not just to be victims of our fantasies.”

In the case of the cast figures, previously only their appearance, where they were found and the contextual clues offered by the archaeological evidence of their surroundings could illuminate their lives and final moments.

And so it is with the subjects of our family history research. For many of our ancestors we have just a few brief snapshots of their lives: dates and location of life events, occupations and address. Sometimes even less, though sometimes much more. From such details we piece together a tentative narrative which best fits our view of the clues.

However, just as our understanding of Pompeii’s cast figures has shifted with the fresh insights brought by new technological analysis, so we must be prepared to expect our ancestral narratives to shift.

Again here new technologies lead the way. The ongoing digitalisation of archival collections and newspaper publications across the globe is making these source materials much easier to access. And as time goes by, new evidence about our ancestors might come to light.

This new data may bring revelations and dispel former theories. What is revealed may suggest your ancestors’ lives were even more mundane than you had previously imagined. Or perhaps more colourful, bringing intriguing revelations – the mere stuff of fantasies perhaps!

Hannah Gill, historytrace, 24/03/2016


Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard, BBC One, broadcast 3 March 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072nxtm

Historytrace can help you to access and uncover new data about your ancestors to bring the real details of their lives to the fore. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family heritage on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blogpost “Fantasy Ancestors – Thursday Thoughts”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Dora Mitsonia.

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