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)