What is remembered lives: research connecting someone to their ancestors

Last spring, I did a presentation at Paganicon about research relating to ancestor work.

My full notes from that presentation (including slides) are up on my Seeking site, but I thought Samhain (at least where I am) was a good time to talk a little more about some aspects of things I brought up there.

Image saying "Research: what is remembered, lives" with a photograph of pomegranates, one whole, one sliced in half.

I’m focusing here on the complexities of history, and will come back and do an article series on academia and its research goals sometime later, but if you’re curious about that, go look at the notes from the presentation.

Why do we care?

One really good question with any research project (or really any project) is figuring out why we’re putting time into this thing, and what we hope to get out of it.

For some people, ancestor work is part of their religious practice (or at least possibly part of their religious practice). Sometimes that’s about blood relationships or relatives we knew directly.

For some of us, it can be about more distant relationships, or interests or skills we have in common, or about individuals we want to connect with for other reasons. For example, I honour a historical figure – Hypatia of Alexandria – as an ancestor of profession, in work that’s about intellectual curiousity and learning.

(This can also be a really good solution if you’d like to do ancestor work, but the ancestors whose names and identities you know are not necessarily people you’d like to interact with more, for a variety of reasons.)

Sometimes, historical research is also important for understanding the history of ideas.  My good friend, Kiya Nicoll, has been doing a lot of research about this recently as it relates to the soup that makes up the Pagan socio-cultural movement, and you can read more on her website and here’s a graphic that gives an idea how complicated some of the relationships are (you’ll want to zoom in) and one more specifically about religious witchcraft. Note that this is very much a work in progress, so things are still being edited.

So many kinds of history

One of the things that fascinates me about historical research is that there are so many more goals and desires in it and ways to approach it than just ‘write a an academic paper’. (Frankly, I think that’s often one of the least interesting ones.)

I like to say that research is a conversation with the world and with time. There are some fixed points we know about (when we know a specific thing happened, or someone did something) but there’s a lot of space around that for things that are much more varied and complex.

My history has popular non-fiction in it. It has musicals. (Hello, Hamilton) It has historical fiction, and historical mysteries, and fantasy novels modelled on historical events. It has reconstructions of food and drink and clothing. It has walking tours and public history events and podcasts and websites. It has rituals and meditations and trancework. It has family photographs and stories from the community, customs and memories.

No one of those things gives the whole picture – but different parts can illustrate different things, and let us see different aspects more clearly. Sometimes it takes designing a historical dress or pair of shoes to realise what that meant about what people did in those clothes, which things were easy and which were challenging. Sometimes looking at the food customs tells us things about what abundance felt like, and the change of seasons. Sometimes fiction lets us immerse ourselves enough in the time and place to start asking different questions or explore different issues,

My day job as a librarian is about 1/3 history by our statistics, questions about the institution I work for, people associated with it, and questions from children or grandchildren of alumni – people where the stories passed down in the family aren’t available any more, and they’re curious about the family history.

Every time we get one of those, I learn something else, because even if they ask something we hear a lot, their particular question is a little different from everyone else’s. And I learn from what they bring to their questions.

Complications in history

There are so many complications in doing history. Never mind doing it well.

Missing pieces:

Most potential sources didn’t survive for us to study. Some cultures didn’t write much down or sources didn’t survive. Some kinds of material require too much time or too many resources to use. (What gets funded is often determined by other needs than doing great history.)

Example: The Etruscans didn’t leave much written material. They have some gorgeous art, but we have to guess about what some (a lot of it…) of what it means.

Biases:

All people – and all sources – have biases. Some are obvious. Many aren’t. They’re still there. Biases are often present in multiple layers of history. They affect what was recorded, when, what was preserved, what gets studied.

Example: Myths being written down after an area had become Christianised: some things may get left out or changed to fit the preferences of the majority culture. Someone studying those writings may also bring their own biases about how to translate words or ideas, or what they mean. Religious topics are perhaps particularly vulnerable to this.

No ‘right’ answer:

Good research is often more about the questions than the answers. It’s also about remembering what we don’t know and can’t find out. It can be very easy to think there’s a right or wrong answer, and it’s usually not that simple.

Example: Some of history is facts (the dates of events we can document in multiple sources), but the why and details are often a lot more about interpretation.

Different priorities:

How we do history has changed over time. Previous scholars may have ignored important things or inserted biases. We have new tools, new science, and less destructive methods of investigation.

Example 1: The excavation of Troy was done in a way that we’d never do now (hopefully!) but it destroyed the probable layer that existed during what came down through myth as the Trojan War.

Example 2: Hildegard von Bingen was a 12th century abbess and nun. She wrote some amazing works of science (and is one of the earliest authors to describe both migraines and female orgasm.) For a long time her music was ignored because it wasn’t like what other people were doing. Here’s Sequentia singing O Virga Ac Diadema.

Practical limits:

Time and money are not in infinite supply! Access, funding, tools and skills available for analysis all depend on a lot of factors researchers may not be able to control. New tech tools are great, but have costs or a learning curve. Some places are heavily affected by war and civil unrest. Confidential information may exist, but not be usable.

Example: There’s a classic core work of astronomy from the 10th century that was only translated into English in the past five years – no one had put together the language skills and interest in the topic to that degree before. The work is known as the Book of the Fixed Stars in English, and you can now read a translation for free thanks to the work of Ihsan Hafez.

Legal limits

In more recent years, a lot of information may not be available (or at least not yet).

Privacy laws affect what information is available. These include things like delays in release of census data, or laws limiting how health information educational information are shared. (In the US, that’d be HIPAA and FERPA, but European privacy laws are often much more restrictive than the US.)

Stigmatized or minority communities, conditions, or backgrounds sometimes had very little information kept, or only from some points of view…

Names are challenging

Common names or name changes can make it incredibly hard to figure out relationships.

My paternal grandmother’s maiden name was Smith, and her first name was pretty common when she was alive. My maternal grandfather legally changed his name five times for complicated reasons involving assimilation into his local culture and laws changing. Both of these make it really tricky to do genealogical research that goes beyond those people.

People also often write or interact under other names – and if you don’t know those names, it can be hard to track them down.

Example: We had an example at work where a researcher suddenly realised the person she was researching had used a pseudonym for some of his writing, and there was a massive trove of articles she hadn’t looked at closely yet.

Curious about historical research?

I’d be delighted to help you figure out how to attack a historical project – it’s part of my consulting services. This can be a fairly quick round of helping you figure out where to start, what resources to check first, or it could be more involved research consulting. That’s up to you!

If you’re curious, check out my consulting page, and describe what you’re interested in.