What Size Were Brooches in the Middle Ages – Part 12 – Figuring out Earlier Cultures

So last time we asked the question – but what about earlier time frames? What can we do to understand cultures like the Romans and the Vikings?

To be blunt, the less figurative art that we have (art with actual life-like representations), the harder it is to be completely confident of our interpretations. Cultures like Rome, Greece, and Egypt, despite having existed a very long time ago, actually left an amazing collection of sculpture, frescoes, paintings, and mosaics.

An excellent example of using this sort of information to help us understand a culture, is the Camomile Street Soldier. I found a single line reference in a book about this being a source of information on the use of buttons in Roman Great Britain. So I Googled it. I quickly discovered that it was a carving that is believed to have been part of a frieze on a tomb. This sculpture clearly shows the clothing of a soldier. I found a small collection of pictures of the carving. You can see the buttons on the front of his tunic, as well as how he wore his sword and how his belt was decorated. In addition, through the generosity of the internet, you can read J.E. Price’s original report on the discovery.

And you can read a follow-up report that reevaluates the frieze in modern terms.

All from one search based on a single reference in a book. Now obviously this was a lucky find.

But sometimes we make our own luck.

The Egyptian tombs had wonderful paintings in them. The Roman frescoes in Pompeii and Herculaneum are legendary for their details. If the culture that you are interested in does not have any surviving carvings or paintings with that level of detail, look at archaeological reports. Join academia.edu (FREE) and start reading the articles that are posted there. You can even set up your preferences so that every time an article is posted in one of your areas of interest, you are notified. Many theses and dissertations will do all of the extensive research that is necessary to interpret the archaeology that is available. Don’t be afraid to let someone else help you do your research – just always approach any research with at least a little healthy skepticism.

Many of the earliest large burials were very poorly excavated by treasure hunting antiquarians, but occasionally we find someone, like Johann Karl Bähr, whose original training was as an artist. He recorded every inhumation grave that he excavated in extreme detail. Unfortunately, his records were for Livian graves, not Vikings, but records like these can provide us with insights into cultures that did not leave good pictures of their members.

Professor Bӓhr’s work is also a good example of a problematical area of study – Vikings vs. Scandinavians vs. Finno-Ugaric cultures. Now this could be a blog series all by itself, but my point is that the Vikings were not a unified culture. They were a generalized group of people who started out in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and northern Germany and spoke the same language – Old Norse. Each area had different influences – the Hanseatic League, the Finno-Ugaric cultures, the Slavs…and different levels of access to imported goods. I would expect the different groups to have dressed and looked differently, with different dress accessories and styles.

But going back to our original theme – what other things are little? More next time!

Territories and voyages of the Vikings

Territories and voyages of the Vikings (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researching on the Cheap, Part 11: Where do I go for more information?

So, you have exhausted the online museums and libraries, your local library (if you have one) is a bad joke, and you have no access to a university library (if you have a local university library see if they have some sort of “friends of the library ” membership that will give you access to their information and inter-library loan). Now what… Facebook and Yahoo interest groups, and Blogs.

Just a few years ago all of my “special interest groups” were located on Yahoo, and some still are. But my most active study groups are now on Facebook. For both of these online service you must be a member, but once you are a member you can search their groups and ask to join. Generally most of the special interest groups require membership in order to post, and if you want to ask questions, you need to be able to post.

Now, I am NOT in love with Facebook. I hate the ads, and I have actively started blocking people who consistently annoy me. But to be able to go onto a group, post a question, and have people from all over the world reply, is amazing.

Are there drawbacks? Definitely. Modern Mythology abounds on some of the groups. What do I mean by that? Well, someone who believes that just because something is this way now, or that people believe something now and therefore it was true in the Middle Ages, may post really bad information. Again, just as with using the internet, you need to educate yourself and maintain a good amount of skepticism in your thought process.

Be certain that you read the descriptions of the groups carefully. One of the Yahoo groups that I am on is very academically oriented. Blatant trolling or posting of bad information will initiate a message from the moderators. If the bad behavior continues the individual in question will be removed from the list.

Often the questions that are posed on these groups are practical. Things like – I need help with a pattern for a specific type of pants – which one do you recommend? I am trying to locate a good source for this type of fabric, where should I go? I am trying to find an Italian Renaissance portrait that shows a specific type of hairstyle, do you know where I can find it? These groups are positively amazing, when it comes to answering these sorts of questions. Instead of spending hundreds of hours in a futile search, or experimenting randomly with retail sources, you can get help from other people who have already used a company.

Aside from groups, there are individuals who post some very good information on their Facebook pages. Some of these people live in countries other than the USA and will post pictures that they have taken in local museums. You can often find these people through the special interest group pages.

And then there are the blogs. Blogs can be anything that the person who writes them wants to publish. Some are awesome, and some are totally full of bad information or totally skewed philosophically. Blogs will come up in regular search engine searches. You are the only one who can decide if the writer is a real authority or a crackpot. But there are some truly excellent blogs on the web. Full of well-taken photographs and facts. Sometimes you can locate the good ones through comments on a special interest group. If you have questions about a blog post a question about it on the special interest group and see what the response is.

I hope that this blog post helps you locate even more helpful information on the internet!

English: A panorama of a research room taken a...

English: A panorama of a research room taken at the New York Public Library with a Canon 5D and 24-105mm f/4L IS. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researching on the Cheap, Part 10: Communicating with Museums

So you have done your research online, but the amount of information about the piece that you are interested in is just not enough. How do you get more information? Contact the museum where the artifact is stored.

I have chatted with many people over the years about their communications with museums. Some have had good experiences, and some have not. Some museums have a mandate to educate the public (the Museum of London is fabulous about this). Some are still locked in the archaic thought that the artifacts are “theirs” and that unless you are someone important you shouldn’t even ask for information, much less the right to actually SEE something. Fortunately this last view of the world is changing, but, and this is a BIG but, we need to be realistic. Most museums, like any underfunded organizations, are staffed by overworked employees. They already have a ton of work on their plates and any request that you make is just another thing to add to that pile.

So how can we make communications with a museum more likely to succeed? Well, the first thing is to make our question as concise as possible. Locate the museum’s accession number for the artifact. Every artifact in a museum usually has a specific number associated with it. In older collections that have not been updated, you will occasionally find a picture of multiple items, where there are no numbers listed for the individual pieces – note the number associated with that picture. When you contact the museum, use that number.

Be specific. Do not ask things like “could you tell me everything about this piece”. If you want to know “everything” then ask yourself what “everything” means, and make a list. Good examples of the sort of things to ask include: what is the thickness of the metal in this piece, what type of fabric is this made from, how much does this piece weigh? Be specific. Ask if there is a publication available that has specific information about an artifact.

I once contacted the Archaeology staff at Jamestown Historical Site, in Virginia, to ask about some black glass buttons that were in their collection. I randomly chose a collections archaeologist off of a list on their website and wrote her a concise note about the information that I was looking for and why I wanted it. It took about a week to hear from her, and when her email came back it contained information about the buttons that I knew about, and others that I did not know about, including pictures. I wrote her back, thanking her for all of the excellent information and asked if she knew of any publications. And yes she did.

But what do we do if the museum in question is in a non-English speaking country? Google Translate! Write a simple, concise letter. No complex sentence structures, no flowery descriptions, and run it through the translator. The person that you are writing to may speak English as well as you do, but they will appreciate your effort and the fact that you do NOT expect everyone to speak English. An example would be something like this:

I am studying Celtic pottery. Your museum has a piece that I would like information about. The number of the piece is 1234567-AB. Can you tell me how tall and how wide this piece is? Is there any published information about this piece?

Translation software usually gets the correct information across if the sentences are simple.

And be patient! Do not expect an answer within 24 hours. Or even a week. Assume that the person that you have written is busy. Maybe they are out of town at a convention, or maybe they are in the field. If you have not heard anything in two or three weeks I would write again and say something like “I am sure that you are very busy. I was wondering if you have had the time to investigate my previous request for information?” Always be polite. I understand the frustration of not being able to get information on something that you are really interested in. It happens.

So what do you do when you have exhausted your museum options and you haven’t found the information that you are looking for?

Next Time: Where do I go for more information?

English: Helmet from France, 1610-1620. Artifa...

English: Helmet from France, 1610-1620. Artifact in Brussels Royal Museum of History and Art (Photo credit: Wikipedia)