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Archaeology and Genealogy

Sarah Barker gravestone.

When doing genealogical research, we become familiar with local history. Knowing and understanding the history of the areas where our ancestors lived can make a big difference in research success. It can also make a difference in understanding our ancestors’ lives and telling their stories. One area of local history that often gets overlooked is archaeology.

Many people associate archaeology with pith helmets and Egyptian tombs. Or digging up ancient monasteries in Europe or Asia. But there is a great deal more to archaeology than that. Archaeological digs are going on all the time, all over the world. And their work can be very helpful on so many levels.

In Boston, for example, the city started an official archaeology program in 1983 to protect the these resources. There are literally hundreds of archaeological sites across the city. The Big Dig, which ran from 1991 through 2007, saw construction digging through the heart of what was colonial Boston. One of the biggest discoveries came in 1993 when the home of Katherine (Wheelwright) (Nanny) Naylor was found. Her husbands were wealthy merchants doing business from Europe to the Caribbean.

Seventeenth-Century bowling ball. The dig revealed the privy. A 1652 Boston law required privies built within 12 feet of a neighboring house to be dug at least six feet deep and be vaulted with brick. This privy was in use by Kathryn’s family for more than a half century, from 1660 through 1716. Because privies were also used for daily trash, they can be a tremendous source of information. Kathryn’s privy is now considered to be one of the most urban archaeological discoveries in all of North America. There was evidence of the colonial diet, fashions, footwear, decorative items made of Venetian glass, and even a three-hundred-year-old bowling ball. The state museum has an online display that discusses this dig and several others, allowing us to get a good understanding of how our ancestors lived.

Sarah Barker gravestone.Archaeologists can also give us more direct information in our research. In this video, Boston City Archaeologist Joe Bagley discusses how they came to discover a grave marker for Sarah Barker. Sarah was only a few weeks old when she died in April 1687. No record of her birth can be found at Boston. This marker is the only evidence that she ever lived. The city website shows more about the archaeologist’s office.

Take the time to look for archaeologists in the areas where your ancestors lived. My friend John is an archaeologist and has worked on many interesting projects, including one that last year excavated three ships in Alexandria, Virginia. The dig eventually revealed more than 100,000 artifacts. You can read more about the Robinson Landing dig in this New York Times article.

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