Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Scale of Time

If you walk along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon near Grand Canyon Village, you will find the remarkable "Trail of Time." Quoting from the website,
The Trail of Time is an interpretive walking timeline trail that focuses on Grand Canyon vistas and rocks to guide visitors to ponder, explore, and understand the magnitude of geologic time and the stories encoded by Grand Canyon rock layers and landscapes.
As you walk along the rim, there are rocks selected from the different layers in the Grand Canyon. The distances between the rocks on the trail are representative of the scale of the time it took the rocks to form.

If you read this blog regularly, you are probably very used to asking yourself, what has this go to do with genealogy? However, in this case, the analogy is almost perfect. Just as geologists studying rock layers go back in time and look for evidence of changes and conditions, as genealogists we face the same challenges. We are standing on the Rim, so to speak, of our ancestral family, trying to reconstruct the past by looking at the different layers of records left to us. Just as with geology, there may be a great unconformity. In geology, the Great Unconformity I am familiar with is the one observed by John Wesley Powell in the Grand Canyon in 1869.

Before we can even identify a gap in records analogous to the Great Uncoformity of the Grand Canyon, we must be intimately familiar with our own ancestors' time scale. Some would call this a time line, but the idea of a time line is the embed events your ancestors experienced in a wider context of history. The time line also serves the purpose of verifying the sequence of events so you don't have mothers having babies at 110 years old and people getting married before they are born etc. I am going beyond that to think of the scale of time, that is what the effect over all of going back in time had on the people. Here is an example:

This is a record from the Family Tree. This is one of my "direct line" ancestors. The photo indicated by the circle and arrow in the upper left is supposed to be a photo of David Shepherd. There is just one small problem. He was supposedly born in 1760 and died in 1832. Now, this is exactly what I mean by a consideration of the "time scale." It is obvious to anyone with a sense of the time involved in moving back into the 18th Century that there were a lot of things we take for common today that were not available. One of those is the invention of photography. Do you know, off the top of your head without looking it up, when the very first photograph was taken? This type of consideration is more than just a time line. You could put his life on a time line and absent the addition of this one fact, the date of the invention of photography, your time line would look just fine. The person who attached this photo simply had no appreciation of the scale of time involved in moving back 254 years into the past.

This sort of problem comes up almost every day as I help people with their genealogy. I have people come to me and complain that they have been searching for an extended period of time for an ancestor and when I ask the time period when the ancestor lived, without batting an eye, they respond with something like the early 1600s. Once again, they are operating without a clue as to the time scale they are dealing with. I am certain that I could quiz any one of these people and they would not have the slightest idea of what the conditions were like in the early 1600s. In fact, if my own experience is any indication, very few genealogists have ever read a history book that would even give them an idea about what was going on back then. Without any concept of the time involved, you might miss some things such as the translation of the King James Bible in 1611 and various important wars and events in England. Again, it is possible that constructing a time line would include some or all of these events, but what is lacking is an appreciation for the scale of time involved.

Going back to the 1600s involves more than just dates and events, it involves an understanding of the conditions of the common people and the types of records that have been preserved. In the early 1600s, the invention of the power loom and the beginning of the industrial revolution were still almost 200 years in the future. It might help you to understand what I am talking about to realize that the first English dictionary arranged in alphabetical order was published in 1604. See Wikipedia: Table Alphabeticall. You might have to think about that fact for a few minutes to grasp the importance that has for genealogical research.

Oh well, I could go on and on. Time scale is an appreciation for the changes that have occurred in the past, not just a lining up of a series of events that have little meaning with an understanding of the changes that occurred from the past to the present. You gain an appreciation for the scale of time by learning about history and then thinking about it in terms of the changes that occur to the lives of your ancestors. What did they eat? What did they drink? What did they die of?

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