Attic Archaeology

by Bob Brooke

According to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, archaeology is "the systematic recovery and scientific study of material evidence of human life and culture in past ages." Most see an archaeologist as someone wearing khakis and an Indiana Jones-style hat, who's up to his or her elbows in fossils and shards.

Sure, archaeologists dig up and study bits and pieces of the past to help reconstruct life back then. And while rifling around a dusty attic or basement may not be as romantic as finding a 4,000-year-old pottery shard, it, nevertheless can yield some interesting finds. It's amazing what can be found in old trunks and shoe boxes.

A family history amounts to more than mere vital statistics. While many searchers compile lists of names, birth, marriage and death dates, they often miss the most important part--who were these people? Letters, diaries, personal journals, memoirs, photo albums, clothing and other family artifacts can add flesh and blood to the ancestral bones and show these peoples' personalities.

Mothers, especially, are great savers. Beginning with keeping a baby book, they tend to amass an entire childhood history of their offspring. When her son is part of the team that won the state basketball championship, she cut out newspaper clippings telling of it. When her daughter got married, she clipped the newspaper engagement and wedding announcements. When her husband went off to war, she saved the letters he sent.

Thanks to Eastman Kodak, even ordinary families kept a record of their lives through photographs. While the appearance of the photo album as changed considerably--from black and white snapshots to videotapes--the purpose remains the same: to make a visual record of family events. Often, scrapbooks contained not only photographs but recipes, souvenirs, postcards, ticket stubs and such.

Old letters between friends, acquaintances and lovers can reveal the innermost secrets of their lives. Letter writing was the main means of communication until the mid-20th century. Before the days of television and the Internet, people sat down and wrote long, detailed letters containing news from home from faraway family members. A letter filled with details of widely scattered relatives helps to trace generations, especially when localities are mentioned. Letters also may suggest relationships that aren't easily determined otherwise. And the date or year of a given letter may supply a valuable point of reference for an event which isn't recorded elsewhere When perusing old letters, not only look at their contents but also take note of their postmarks, dates, and return addresses.

Diaries and personal journals didn't contain the immature line-a-day ramblings of teenage girls but were adult depositories for thoughts and reactions to events. Their authors filled them with personal expressions and reactions to life and events that helps attach a personality to their name. It's essential to record any names found in a diary, since they may come into play later.

It's a good rule never to borrow or keep personal documents. Make a copy, if possible, or extract all the information needed and ask to see the items again.

Lastly, don't take it for granted that attics and basements are the only places relatives kept treasured documents. Letters were often stuffed within the pages of a favorite book, while personal diaries and letter collections were often hidden in secret places in walls or floors. Look for clues and get permission before going on a wild goose chase that could do damage.

As in archaeology, the people who could have answered questions are long gone. But their thoughts remain.

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