Researching on the Cheap: Part 5 – More on Good Goodies

Last time I ended my discussion with a few comments on grave goods. I mentioned that I had never seen my grandfather in a suit until I saw him at his funeral. In our culture most of us have a LOT of clothes. In ancient cultures this was rarely the case and the lower the social class of an individual, the more likely they were to be buried in something closer to what they actually wore. But if a person is buried without grave goods, does it mean that they were poor? It depends on their religious beliefs. The researcher has to know something about the culture of the person that they are looking at in order to be able to make a judgment about social class. When you are doing research, understanding as much about a culture as you can will help you to recognize something that is out of place.

Going to a reputable source online, like a museum or a well-known antiquity dealer, and looking at a bunch – not one or two artifacts, but a dozen or more if possible, will give you a reasonable feel for what something should look like. This “feeling” can often help you detect inaccurate information. I often have people bring me pieces of jewelry that they have purchased that are just “so wrong”. They look wrong to me because I have looked at LOTS of real ones, both in person and on-line. For instance, there is a well known merchant who sells a “Viking Turtle Brooch” with a face on it “from York”. It is a fiction. The face is from a Medieval piece and has nothing to do with Vikings. Now this is fine if you are not concerned about authenticity, but if you are, it can be very disappointing. Knowing what the real brooches looked like, the style of art, the use of geometry, the way faces were really depicted, would solve that problem, and it is really NOT that hard to discover.

This brings us to what my husband calls “weasel words” – sentences that have equivocation in them. Phrases like “might have been”, “could have been”, “sometimes”, etc., leave a lot of “wiggle room” for accuracy. The brooch that I mentioned with the face says it is “from York”. A reference that said “based on a Viking Age brooch found in York, England” is more likely to be accurate. Could someone fib, yes, of course, but most people won’t bother unless it involves a LOT of money (usually an antiquity).

I have started giving much more precise information about any reproduction artifacts that I make: where was it from, what time frame, who found it, where is it now. These are all facts that make something more likely to be useful and authentic to those who care. Some folks have very specific geographic areas that their persona comes from, so this information is important to them. On the other hand, it is important to understand that there are many things that researchers honestly don’t know for sure, so “words of equivocation” sometimes have to be used in order to maintain academic integrity.

Next time: Even More “warning signs”