History (from the Greek ἱστορία, meaning ‘a learning or knowing by inquiry’) can be broadly taken to indicate the past in general but is usually defined as the study of the past from the point at which there were written sources onwards.
There are obstacles that make it so we do not have a crystal clear, uninterrupted view of the past. Firstly, we have to remember that everyone – not just us, but also people throughout history – is shaped by their upbringing and the societies and times they live in, and we need to be careful not to stick our own labels and values onto past periods. Secondly, our view of the past is made up from the total of things that somehow happened to survive the test of time, which is due to coincidences and decisions made by people before our time. So, we only get a fragmentary, distorted view; it is like trying to complete a puzzle with a lot of oddly shaped and missing pieces.
To fill in the context of the past we wish to study involves carefully questioning a whole bunch of sources – not just written ones – and avoiding pitfalls as much as possible. The closely connected field of archaeology offers a priceless helping hand in achieving this, so these sources will be discussed here, too.
UNRAVELLING THE SOURCES
Sources are our way of peering into the past, but the various kinds all present their own benefits and difficulties. The first distinction to make is between primary and secondary sources. A primary source is first-hand material that stems (roughly) from the time period that one wants to examine, whereas a secondary source is an additional step removed from that period – a 'second-hand' work that is the result of reconstructing and interpreting the past using the primary material, such as textbooks, articles, and, of course, websites such as this one.
However cool actual sources from times gone by may be, we cannot simply assume that everything they tell us (or everything we think they tell us) is true, or that we are automatically able to interpret their contents and context correctly. They were made by people, from within their own contexts. Keeping a critical eye and asking questions is thus the way to go, and it is a good idea to cross-examine different sources on the same topic to see whether any kind of consensus rolls out.
Some general questions you should ask of any type of source are:
- What type of source is it? What does its form tell us? Is it a neatly engraved inscription, an undecorated, heavily used bit of earthenware, or a roughly scribbled letter on cheap paper?
- Who created the source? How did they gather the necessary information? Were they an eyewitness, or did they rely on researching other sources or on the stories of people who had witnessed the event? Could they be biased?
- With which goal was the source created? Did the creator want to tell a truthful story or, for instance, influence others through propaganda? How reliable does that make it?
- What is the context in which the source was created? To understand a source it helps to know something about the society and immediate context in which it was made. A Christian source written while Christianity was still a persecuted religion differs from one after Christianity was made the official religion. Compare it with other sources from the same period/that concern the same subject to help you assess how reliable the source may be and help you interpret its content.
- What is the content of the source and how do we interpret it? What does it tell us and what does it not tell us? What are its limitations? What sorts of questions could this source answer?
Different sources bring different benefits and pitfalls with them, though; these will be discussed in more detail below.
Some examples of primary written sources are contemporary letters, eyewitness accounts, official documents, political declarations and decrees, administrative texts, and histories and biographies written in the period that is to be studied.
Benefits – details; personal side; context
The unmatched level of detail presented by written sources in general is an obvious goldmine to the greedy historian. Moreover, reading a written source tends to tell you something about the author and the context in which they are writing just as well as the topic they concern themselves with.
The detail in some written sources can lead to unexpected discoveries, such as the astonishing fact that the Phoenicians already sailed around Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in open boats as early as 600 BCE. Herodotus, the ‘father of history’, writes in his Histories – a work recounting the events of the Greco-Persian Wars (499-479 BCE) – that
On their return, they declared - I for my part do not believe them, but perhaps others may - that in sailing round Libya [Africa] they had the sun upon their right hand. In this way was the extent of Libya first discovered. (Hdt. IV. 42).
South of the equator, the sun would indeed have been on the sailors' right-hand side while sailing westward around the Cape – a detail the sailors could not have known if they had not actually witnessed it, so it appears to be true.
Pitfalls – transmission; reliability, bias & intentions; contemporaneity
The first hurdle with written sources is their transmission; materials such as papyrus, parchment, and paper do not have infinite lifespans, so the sources we have in front of us right now have usually been copied, reviewed, edited, even translated, at some point in time, and may include mistakes or deliberate changes. This puts a thin barrier between us and the original text.
Secondly, authors may not be reliable, may have been biased, or may have had certain intentions that jeopardise the source's objectivity. Forgery is unfortunately also not entirely outside the realm of possibilities, as the Donatio Constantini (the Donation of Constantine) makes painfully clear. Asking the following questions can help canvass these issues:
- Who created the source and what was his or her background?
People are undeniably connected with their backgrounds – upbringing, family, the times they lived in, and so forth, and we have to examine the source from within this framework.
- What do we know of the context in which the source was created?
The prevailing values, schools of thought, religion, the political situation, possible censure, as well as whether the source was perhaps commissioned by someone or not, all have an impact on the contents of a source. Comparing a source to other (types of) sources from the same period or concerning the same topic can help determine its reliability and help you form a picture of what may have actually happened.
- Did the creator have a specific goal or a specific audience?
A personal letter with the goal of declaring the author’s love to his recipient yields a different kind of information than a piece of propaganda written in order to strengthen a ruler’s position. Of course, the goal may not be quite as easy to spot as that.
Thirdly, it is important to check whether the author was actually around for the events they are writing about. Questions to ask are:
- Was the author a contemporary and/or an eyewitness?
- If no: where did they get their information and how reliable was that information? It could have come from documents, eyewitnesses, or other sources available to them.
- If yes: did they personally witness the event they are describing? How accurate is their memory? Being alive at the same time as Empress Wu from Song China, for instance, does not automatically mean you were in a position to see which clothes she wore on a specific Monday morning.
Herodotus, for instance, was not an eyewitness himself, and although usually of decent critical mind, he sometimes fell flat in his judgement of his sources - the person who convinced him that the hind legs of camels have four thigh bones and four knee-joints must have been well chuffed. (Hdt. III.103). Furthermore, when entire speeches are recorded word-for-word, one must wonder how plausible it is, firstly, that the eyewitness remembered all of it, sometimes for a long stretch of time, and, secondly, that the author then recorded the whole speech exactly as recited by his witness, without shaping it to suit his desired narrative.
Epigraphy refers to the study of inscriptions engraved upon various surfaces such as stone, metal, wood, clay tablets, or even wax, which may vary hugely in length from mere abbreviated words and administrative tablets to depicting entire official decrees.
Benefits – typically durable; visible
Usually, inscriptions tend to be pretty durable because of the nature of the materials that were used, although whether or not the inscription has been exposed to the elements makes a bit of a difference. They were often intended to be publically visible, catching the eye like a big neon sign, their content shared with as many people as possible.
Pitfalls – audience; creators; intentions
This often public nature does not mean inscriptions should just be mindlessly accepted to reflect the exact truth, though; they had authors or commissioners who had certain purposes. Sometimes inscriptions even turn out to be forged, or have been moved and are no longer in their original locations. Things to keep in mind are:
- Who created or commissioned the inscription?
Is this, for instance, a lonely mother who had an elaborate, glorifying, and soppy inscription engraved on the headstone of her young son’s grave, for passers-by to see, or is it a ruler’s proclamation which subtly connects himself with a divine power?
- What is the goal of the inscription?
Perhaps it was created to inform, to record, to glorify, or to influence public opinion.
- Can it be dated (by things like the context, monument, or the language), and does the date match the content of the inscription?
A good example of the sometimes misleading nature of inscriptions is the Pantheon in Rome, a sometimes infuriating structure to go look at when you come too close to tourist groups led by guides that are not aware of the full story. The inscription states the following:
Upon deciphering this text – the abbreviations are standardised ones routinely used in inscriptions in Ancient Rome – one would conclude that the building was created by Marcus Agrippa, emperor Augustus' right-hand man. However, the buildings' bricks were stamped with the names of the consuls in office at the time of firing, which has allowed us to date the whole thing to a good century and a half later than Agrippa, belonging instead to the first part of emperor Hadrian’s reign, probably between 117-126-8 CE. The good man wanted to honour an earlier building at the same site, which was built by Agrippa around 25 BCE, and decided to stick Agrippa's inscription on his own brand-new entablature. There is thus more than meets the eye.
Settlements, buildings, & monuments
Benefits – made to last; indicate structure of societies
The daily lives of people become visible through the remains of their houses and the buildings they made use of, such as courts of law, bakeries, or schools. Monuments, also not unusually flashing inscriptions at its audience, can reveal the messages their normally powerful creators cried out to the world through their architecture and imagery. As such, they can be used to reconstruct the structure of societies.
Pitfalls – not always well-preserved; inferring meaning; propaganda
Of course, the actual durability varies immensely, and sometimes not much more than the groundworks remain. We must thus ask:
- How do we accurately reconstruct the remains (physically or on paper)?
Archaeologists have become quite adept at 'reading' the pieces that are left; comparing the remains with others that may be more fully preserved or with primary sources describing the structure; and rebuilding what is essentially a hugely complex 3D puzzle, either on paper or by actually restoring the remains in question. Bits and pieces may have been carted off, destroyed, moved around, fallen over, and so forth, so it is important to keep in mind that the puzzle process may require some guesswork and may result in mistakes being made.
- What is the function of the structure?
- How do we interpret what it may tell us about a culture?
The site of Palenque – an important Maya city situated in present-day Mexico – for instance, is home to a group of temples that fit within a context of both propaganda and symbolism. The Temples of the Cross, Foliated Cross, and Sun, dedicated in 692 CE, were commissioned by king Kan Balam. Their sculptures and reliefs illustrate the king’s connection with the gods: he is depicted as a guardian of fertility, maize, and rain.
Kan Balam moreover legitimised his rule by depicting his genealogy as well as a scene in which he receives his power from his ancestors. More practically, these temples were important ceremonial centres too. At this site, the political is thus visibly linked with the ritual context – something that fits well within the broader Mayan cultural context – and, as a source, it must be interpreted within this framework.
Benefits – daily lives; use; society & culture
Pitfalls – inferring meaning; inferring clues about society
Artefacts are man-made things of archaeological interest, often from a cultural context. Examples are pottery, utensils, tools and jewellery, which can alert us to daily lives, style and culture; art – including statues – which can be both public and private and reflects the society in some way; and coins, which are more political - often standardised, they proclaim a visible message that tends to serve as propaganda to bolster a ruler’s image. We should ask of each artefact:
- What was its use or purpose?
- What might it tell us about the society’s structure and culture?
An example lies within the 15th- and 16th-century CE Korean Buncheong wares – practically used ceramics that were blue-green with a white slip, typically decorated with combinations of geometric and natural shapes such as peonies, birds and fish, enhanced with dots. They are interesting not just because of their homely context and the light they shed on daily lives but also because they were produced by potteries that were not controlled by the state – in contrast to other types of Korean pottery. This means that Buncheong wares show a lot of regional flavour and out-of-the-box variation, as well as showing the preferences of the people who ordered the wares. This helps us colour in the lives and homes of ordinary Koreans living at that time.
Benefits – morphology; health & related clues; filling in blanks; genetic evidence
Studying bones yields clues regarding health, gender, age, size, diet, etc. Retrieval of ancient DNA – though not exactly a walk in the park – is also possible. The context in which bones are found as well as the point in time they came from help to fill information regarding their societies. This is already valuable in support of historical sources, as, for instance, mass graves of victims of the black death support the image created by the written record, but for the prehistoric side of things, bones are truly indispensable in helping us fill in the blanks.
For places such as Australia, we have no written sources until westerners came brutally barging in in 1788 CE. Here, bones can alert us to the prehistoric human presence in specific areas. For instance, through tracing bones found at sites such as Malakunanja 2 in Australia’s Northern Territory, dated to around 53,000 years old, and the famous Lake Mungo burials in southern Australia dated to around 41,000 years old, we can fill in Australia’s initial colonisation.
Pitfalls – dating; interpretation context
Dating bones is not always a straightforward matter, though. Things to keep in mind are:
- Is the dating scientifically and/or archaeologically accurate? Could there be contamination, could sediments have shifted or could the bones have been moved?
- How should the context in which the bones were found be interpreted? What does the context tell you about the bones themselves?
After the maze that is primary sources, we may be tempted to think secondary sources are a sort of safe haven, where skilled researchers have taken all of the above-mentioned issues into account and have already come as close to actual history as possible.
However, this would be a tad naïve; the people writing the secondary material are just as bound to their own contexts as the ancients they are studying. Again, then, we must be wary of possible bias and goals, as well as of the accuracy – it is all too easy to draw conclusions that support your hypothesis. Even if a secondary source may appear reliable in that it shows you which sources they have used and seems to draw logical conclusions from them, it is still possible that the author has hand-picked exactly those sources that support their story, rather than presenting the full picture (which may contradict or add more nuance to their story). To prevent being misled, it is important to always study more than one secondary sources. Compare different books and articles on the subject you are researching, and, after assessing each source's reliability, strengths and weaknesses, try to get as complete a view as possible of the topic.
When using secondary sources, it thus helps to ask these questions:
- Has the author been trained in the right field, and does he or she have decent credit in the academic world?
Reading reviews can be of great assistance here.
- Where was the source published and could that impact the contents at all?
My own history education in the Netherlands was filled with many textbooks that were quite western in nature, unfortunately offering less expertise (or even interest) with regard to other areas of the world. Also, when it comes to articles, some journals have better reputations than others.
- When was the source published?
Times change. A textbook written in the 1960s CE may not have had access to all the information we have right now and may be coloured by the time’s prevailing ideas about how to approach the study of history.
- What is the scope of the source?
Social histories paint a different picture than military ones, so be sure to choose sources that correspond with the questions you yourself want to answer.
- Which sources has the author used and how critical has he or she been?
It is important the author has documented his or her use of sources, so you can examine them yourself if need be. Keep an eye out for selective use of sources; an author should not simply choose the sources that fit their hypothesis but should take the full range of primary information into account.
The materials to be questioned vary from, for instance, textbooks and course books to independent books, articles (including scientific ones, whose accuracy may be hard to judge by a non-scientist), and websites – but be sure to pick ones that show source lists and authors’ names. As long as you stay critical, there is a wealth of information at your disposal.