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Family history: reaching out to the descendants

In this video, descendants Carol Gardner and Dan Hamilton reflect on what the project means to them personally.

Four years after the skeletons were first identified by archaeologists during construction work on Palace Green, the site of their burial is commemorated and the human remains have now been re-interred. For the archaeologists in the research team, however, this is not the end of the story.

Dunbar families keep in touch through social media, clan events and newsletters, and continue to undertake research of their own with which we collaborate. Their sense of shared heritage and Scottish identity is undimmed. As educators we all understand the power of archaeology and history to surprise and inform, and for descendants the story generates unexpected emotions as they contemplate the personal strengths needed to survive Dunbar and the cascade of events which followed.

In May 2018 the Scottish soldiers story featured on the US version of the TV series Who Do You Think You Are? Each programme traces the family history of a celebrity and, in this case, the actor Jon Cryer (Two and a Half Men, Pretty in Pink) had been identified as having an ancestor, James Adams, who had survived the battle of Dunbar and events later in Durham and sailed the Atlantic in the winter of 1650. James was a founding member of the Scots Charitable Society in January 1657 and died at Concord (Middlesex), Massachusetts in 1707. Jon Cryer had no inkling either that his ancestor was Scottish or had been transported to the colonies as an indentured servant. The news came as a complete shock to him. Commenting on the programme, Jon said: ‘The resilience of my family, that spine of steel, is not something that came from nowhere’.

The Dunbar story has many threads and themes which is perhaps why so many people find inspiration there. In the video above, descendants Carol Gardner and Dan Hamilton reflect on what the project means to them personally. As one Dunbar descendant put it to us: ‘Public history is truly critical for societies to learn and grow together’. The battle between English and Scottish armies outside Dunbar in the misty early hours of 3rd September 1650 may have lasted little more than an hour but, like all conflicts, it affected the lives of many people then and through the centuries. For succeeding generations of families on both sides of the Atlantic, the hardship and banishment of the Dunbar men transcends the years.

What kind of television programme would you make to tell the story best to the wider public? Discuss in the Comments section below.

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Archaeology and the Battle of Dunbar 1650: From the Scottish Battlefield to the New World

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