So we have discussed improperly trained docents, bad labels, out of date digital collection entries, and clerical errors in digital entries. But where does this leave us as researchers?
Simply put, you have to educate yourself. The days of just accepting what we read in a book or see in a museum have to end. They really never should have existed, but before the internet researching really was a lot more difficult. It is our job as researchers to know at least the basic science behind the artifacts that we are looking at, so that scientifically based errors will jump out at us. and it is also our job to know as much as we possibly can about a culture so that mistakes relating to cultural artifacts will stand out. And believe me, I do know how difficult this is. When I am in the shop I often get questions about some fairly obscure cultures, and sometimes I really can’t be very helpful, but I don’t make up answers.
An excellent example of why you should try to know as much as you can about a culture and its neighbors comes from several articles that I had run across many years ago. They were all excited about a female Anglo Saxon grave in England. There were whisperings of magic, you know, the standard “high priestess” stuff that we usually see in Russian news articles from Siberia. Well, let me say that there are generally no specific items that instantly made the grave anything other than a high status grave. The single exception to this that I am aware of is the presence of an iron staff in Scandinavian graves. That is legitimately thought to be something of extreme significance. But getting back to our Anglo Saxon woman. She was buried with a “magic spoon and a crystal ball”. Now she really was buried with a crystal ball – literally a piece of rock crystal in the shape of a ball – as I recall it was about 1 1/4 inches in diameter and held in a crude silver suspension loop. These crystal balls were traded all over Europe and would definitely have been a prized possession. Could they have been used for magic? Sure, why not? But it is not something that we have anything factual about. But the clincher was the spoon – obviously used for magical rites. Umm, maybe, but if you had any knowledge of Roman culture you would have instantly recognized it as a wine strainer – designed to keep the chunks from the bottom of the wine container out of your glass. The Anglo-Saxon’s used them, too, and in fact there are a couple of wine strainer spoons with Christian words and symbols on them. In fact here is a picture from the British Museum of a nice wine strainer with a chi rho and the link to the artifact record.
Aside from education, you really have to keep good records of the research that you are doing. A lot of folks are now using Pinterest as a way of organizing photographs of artifacts that they find and want to keep a record of, but there are other ways to save information, including plain old Word documents. My oldest research is located in physical file folders in a filing cabinet, but most of my newer work is organized in Word documents in folders. Starting in November of 2014 I did a eleven part blog series called “Researching on the Cheap”. The series covered all of the tricks and hints that I could think of at the time to help people research online, and keep track of their results. Here is a link to the first blog in the series. If you feel that knowing how to do better research would be helpful, I highly recommend that you read the series.
I hope that this blog inspires you to question, and then seek correct answers. That is the best that any of us can do.