Through the Time Machine: the Oldest Documents on Ancestry®

Family History
17 May 2019
by Ancestry® Team

What is the oldest document on Ancestry®? What does it look like, and how did it get onto the site?

The story of how Ancestry got its oldest digitized document is deep and intriguing and deserves to be told.

Scouring the Bavarian Countryside

It’s 2011. Nikolai Donitzky, the Managing Director of European Content at Ancestry, has been traveling up and down the Bavarian countryside for some time. He’s in search of local records that will help Ancestry customers trace their ancestors back to Germany.

Sadly, many irreplaceable records were lost to the bombings of WWII, so older collections are few and far between.

Nikolai’s search took him to Mühldorf in Bavaria, near the Austrian border

After an exhaustive search, a local curator tells Nikolai to visit Mühldorf, 25 miles from the Austrian border. When he makes the journey, he is unaware of the treasure-trove he’s about to find.

700-Year-Old Documents

At first, his visit to Mühldorf’s Archives feels standard. He meets the archivist who discusses the usual sets of records that most German archives have.

Then, suddenly, the archivist shows him older records. Much older. Seven-hundred-year-old documents with original wax seals attached. Records with flowing Latin and German script, covering centuries of medieval and modern life in Mühldorf.

Nikolai was amazed to see 700-year-old documents with the wax seal still attached.

Despite the fires and bombings that destroyed so many German records, these collections are completely unscathed.

Nikolai sees a testament to the Mühldorf’s preservation in its city hall, where its 800-year-old rooms—made completely out of wood and without a single screw—still stand untouched.

A Roadblock and Then a Deal

Mühldorf’s collections are incredible, overwhelming. But which ones will be the most helpful to Ancestry customers?

The Mühldorf Deeds catch Nikolai’s eye. Dating as far back as 1300, they include an individual’s name, occupation, property, and even birth information.

Non-residents coming into Mühldorf have even more detailed documentation in the Deeds, since they had to be vetted before they could pursue a trade in the city.

Some of the documents in the Mühldorf Deeds dated back to the 1300s.

The Deeds are a goldmine of genealogical information, but the Mühldorf Archives has no digital images for them.

So, Nikolai strikes a deal: He’ll scan the Deeds for the Mühldorf Archives—preserving its contents permanently—if he’s allowed to put the images of the Deeds on Ancestry as well. The archivist agrees, and Nikolai gets to work.

Transport and the Mother of All Paper Cuts

Scanning the Deeds, however, is no easy task. The collection contains thousands of loose sheets in different shapes and sizes, from standard paper to parchment with wax seals. To tackle this, Nikolai works with Herrmann und Kraemer, a firm that specializes in imaging and archiving.

Herrmann und Kraemer transports the deeds over a hundred miles from the Mühldorf Archives to their scanning facility in Garmisch-Partenkirchen.

A colleague of Nikolai’s, Peter Goodwin, commented,

“The fact that the transport of these unique and irreplaceable documents out of the archive was allowed speaks to the trust that the archive placed in us.”

At the scanning facility, special handling is required for the centuries-old documents. The larger deeds must be digitized in sections and the images stitched together. The papers have to be scanned quickly before the scanner’s heat can melt the wax seals.

The documents had to be scanned quickly, before the heat from the scanner could melt the wax seals.

Nikolai gets a paper cut from one of the documents on his right hand—and it turns into a medieval-style infection. He later recalls,

“The doctors had no idea about whatever was on that paper that caused the infection. They think some medieval stuff came alive when it got in touch with my blood.”

It ends up taking two years for Nikolai’s body to fight off the infection. And to this day he’s still numb in the area of his right hand where he got the paper cut.

Success: the Mühldorf Deeds on Ancestry

Despite the setbacks, the scanning is completed in 2014. The result is a beautiful digital collection, with details so refined you can see the designs on the original wax seals and clearly distinguish each letter of the elegant, flowing script.

The level of detail you can see in some of the documents is so rich.

The Deeds tell of farmers and lords exchanging money and donating to churches, and property changing hands through the centuries.

With the Deeds returned safely to Mühldorf (scanned images included), Ancestry releases the newly-digitized “Mühldorf, Germany, Deeds” collection on its own site.

Nikolai, whose paper cut heals, watches with satisfaction as Ancestry makes its mark in both genealogy and historic preservation.

The full Mühldorf Deeds record collection on Ancestry is at your fingertips: log in today.


Ancestry tip: There’s a story behind every collection on Ancestry: you can discover a wealth of information behind every collection in the “Source” and “About” sections on any Ancestry database.