I think the reason I'm drawn to history is because of how much we don't know.
Whenever I'm in a place that has tangible relics from the past, it always comes to mind to wonder who the people were who handled and used those things, who had stood in that place centuries ago. What were their lives like? It's in part the same curiosity that got me interested when I was a teenager in my own family history. Those names on the historical records were real people with real lives, and about whom I will only know the barest fraction no matter how much research I do. One of my favorite examples is my great-great-grandmother, Sarah (Handsberry) (Overby) (Biles) Rulong, who left her home in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania at age about twenty. To my knowledge, she left behind her entire family -- the people she traveled with afterward were strangers -- and in around 1800, she went from southeastern Pennsylvania to New Madrid, Missouri, where she married her first husband (Burwell Overby), and had one child. She and her daughter then upped stakes and went to southern Louisiana, where she married husband #2 (John Biles) and #3 (Aaron Rulong), having four more children from each marriage. She outlived all three husbands, and doesn't show up in the 1830 census, but whether that's because she died herself or went on to other adventures in other places, I have no idea.
What would impel a twenty-year-old unmarried woman to launch off with a bunch of strangers into what was then trackless wilderness? I've always wondered what her life must have been like. (I am not unaware that there's a possibility she might have been a prostitute -- not uncommon in those days -- and I know at least that her third husband, who is my great-great-grandfather, wasn't exactly of law-abiding stock himself; Aaron Rulong had abandoned his first wife and children to go west, and his father Luke was arrested multiple times for such crimes as poaching, rioting, trespassing, mischief-making, and disturbing the peace. My family tree definitely has some seriously sketchy branches.)
It was when I was in England that I was struck most forcefully by the thought of all the legions of people who had trod that ground before me. The indigenous people who had occupied the land I currently live on -- the Seneca and Cayuga tribes -- didn't leave a lot in the way of permanent construction, so although I know they were here, I'm not hit by it directly on a daily basis the way one is in somewhere like England. The tangible artifacts there go back thousands of years. When, on a cool, blustery day, I walked on Hadrian's Wall -- the second-century C.E. wall running across Britain from Solway Sound to the mouth of the Tyne River -- and looked out across the empty moorland northward, it was easy to imagine being one of the Roman Legionnaires posted on duty and waiting for the next attack of the Scots and Picts, the "barbarian tribes" the Wall was intended to keep out.
In fact, Hadrian's Wall is the reason this whole topic comes up. My friend (and frequent contributor of great topics for Skeptophilia), Gil Miller, sent me a link from Smithsonian Magazine that a previously-unknown piece of Hadrian's Wall was just unearthed -- beneath one of Newcastle-upon-Tyne's busiest roads.
Workers were digging into the surface of West Road to replace a section of storm sewer pipe, and only a couple of feet down they ran into stonework that was obviously not of recent vintage. Archaeologists were called in, and they were able to identify it as Roman construction dating to the early part of the second century, and that it was contiguous with the known parts of the Wall."Despite the route of Hadrian’s Wall being fairly well documented in this area of the city, it is always exciting when we encounter the wall’s remains and have the opportunity to learn more about this internationally significant site," said Philippa Hunter of Archaeological Research Services Ltd., the group that is working to study and preserve the site. "This is particularly true in this instance where we believe that we uncovered part of the wall’s earliest phase."
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