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 Older information may be out of date.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)