Researching on the Cheap Part 7: More Tips and Tricks

My conclusion about this series on research is that I could probably write an encyclopedia on this topic, and still omit things! So here are just a few more random tips and tricks for doing research.

One problem that you can run across while researching is the difficulty of interpreting artist renderings as a way of judging potential research value of an article. Older artifacts are often only available online as an artist’s rendering – a picture that someone drew of the piece. This is a difficult situation, because that artifact is being drawn through the interpretive eyes of the artist. Some artists are totally literal, they draw only what it actually there, and others draw what they think should be there. My personal preference is to compare an artist’s rendering with a black and white picture and a colored picture. Why? Because each of those mediums will give us a slightly different view of the piece. The newer super high-definition color photographs of an item, are usually the best, but even they may not show something that the human eye can detect. For instance, glass is extremely hard to photograph because minute scratches and oxidation on the surface of the glass will affect the perception of the color. The human eye and brain are capable of working out the actual color of the glass, which may not show in a photograph, so a description can be important.

Some years ago I was researching pre-1600 glass buttons and found a wonderful article written by one of the archaeologists who had excavated the Fort Popham site in coastal Maine. There we some great pictures of glass buttons recovered from the 1607 settlement. Try as I may, I couldn’t make the buttons come out with the “soft serve ice cream swirl” like the pictures showed. A few years later I visited the Maine State Museum and looked closely at the buttons. No ice cream swirls! Why had the pictures shown that annoying swirl? Bubbles. The way in which the buttons were lighted, combined with the digital camera used to take the pictures, increased the ability to see where microscopic bubbles had been captured in the hot glass.

This brings us to the “occasional finds” and “donated finds”. There are many thousands of “occasional finds” in museum data bases. These are objects that were found in random locations, often by using a metal detector. Objects that may have been lost randomly while in use, or moved from their original locations by agricultural activities are not worthless, but they do not tell us as much as we would like. Reputable sources, like the Portable Antiquities Scheme, or the British Museum will give as many details as they have about a piece, and compare it to other, more fully documented artifacts. This doesn’t mean that their information can’t have mistakes in it, but it is less likely to be wrong. A considerable number of items in places like the British Museum were collected and donated back before scientific archaeological excavation techniques were developed. Most of the major art museums are in the process of completely reevaluating their collections. They have discovered that many of their benefactors were lied to about the origins and value of their artifacts. The artifact records at the British Museum now reflect the continuing research, and restoration that has occurred.

When I was an undergraduate studying Archaeology, the old joke was – if you can’t figure out what something is label it as a “religious artifact”. While this is not as common a process as it used to be, older research may still include these sort of comments. Read “religious item” etc with doubt in your mind. Do they have a plausible explanation of WHY they think it’s religious? Some modern archaeologists actually have email groups that they query when they find something that they are uncertain about. It is almost impossible to know all of the tools that would be used in every craft. These email groups often include people involved in experimental archaeology and reenactment, because they are familiar with the use of archaic tools.

Next Time: Working with the Websites

English: The Entrance to the british museum in...

English: The Entrance to the british museum in London, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Researching on the Cheap – Part 4 – Determining which Goodies are really GOOD

Well, I have to admit this week’s topic can be a difficult one. As I discussed in the blog about search terms, one of the challenges of doing good research is learning enough so that you can determine what information is actually good. There are some general approaches that you can take to figure things out.

First of all, and I can say this because I have both peer-reviewed academic and re-creator recognition. As you know, I am a member of the Order of the Laurel in the SCA. I have a Master’s Degree in Anthropology with a specialization in Archaeology and have been an invited lecturer on medieval jewelry production techniques. Credentials are nice, but verify, verify, verify. Do NOT assume that just because a person says that they have credentials, the information that they have on their website (or even in a published book) is correct. Check the date that the information was published, if possible. Older information may be out of date. New discoveries are made all of the time, and new information can change the previously accepted conclusions about a topic. Compare the information that you find on different websites and see if they agree. Use sites like Wikipedia to develop a general understanding of a topic and then supplement that information with well-written articles from blogs, museums and academic journals.

Be extremely cautious of any articles or books that are Victorian or pre-1940 (but post 1650). Many of these items are available for free download online. There are reputable sources from these timeframes, but many of the older works are more than slightly fanciful. You can trust the actual pictures of artifacts from these sources, but the Victorians were famous for their bogus interpretations of historical costumes and ethnic costumes. There are a couple of amazingly annoying works on costumes out there that keep rearing their ugly heads as research documentation. Although historical costumes were sometimes elaborate, most of them also needed to be functional, especially if the person was not a member of the ruling class. Older sources often lacked an understanding of how the people in a specific cultural group made a living and lived. For example, a classic issue in Archaeology is deciding that everyone who is buried with a sword or shield is a male and everyone who is buried with a spindle or a pot is a woman. When you do an actual skeletal or DNA analysis, this assumption has proven to be grossly inaccurate.

Continuing the theme of skeletons and burials. One of the points that I make in some of my classes is that just because a person was buried with something doesn’t mean that they wore all of these things every day. Grave goods were often a combination of “goodies for the afterworld” – things that the individual would need to have there. They may have also included favorite things that belonged to the individual, or maybe a bribe or two to encourage the dead not to return. There is no way to be sure. At any rate, the quantity of items that some individuals were buried with would have made functioning in the real world impossible. Do not feel that you must own and wear everything that was in a grave in order to be accurate. As I tell my classes – I never even knew that my grandfather owned a suit until I saw him wearing it at the funeral. That was not what he looked like in his everyday existence. Try to look at artifacts and research with a practical and realistic eye.

Next Time: More on Good Goodies

King William I ('The Conqueror'), by unknown a...

King William I (‘The Conqueror’), by unknown artist. See source website for additional information. This set of images was gathered by User:Dcoetzee from the National Portrait Gallery, London website using a special tool. All images in this batch are listed as “unknown author” by the NPG, who is diligent in researching authors, and was donated to the NPG before 1939 according to their website. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)