Finding My Peeps! (Sorry I Couldn’t Resist!)

In between some of my longer blog series I often like to do a blog about something that I think might be helpful to folks who are doing specific research. I was recently contacted by a person who was interested in finding out more information about Bohemia. She said that she was of Bohemian ancestry and was having problems finding good information on the area.

I admit, my knowledge of the old Soviet Bloc nations is considerably less than western Europe and other areas. So I looked it up online, and found myself immediately comparing a bunch of obscure and annoying maps of the general area. Many of the maps had no modern city names on them, and the use of different names for the same geographical locations made it more of a challenge. I found myself using the Baltic, Mediterranean and Black Seas as major landmarks. What I realized after a few moments of fumbling was that I had studied portions of the general area, but that I had approached it from a different angle than she was. I did not look for Bohemians, I looked for information on Slavs. I was aware that this was a tribal area, which probably had a much greater sense of “tribe” than Slav or Bohemian.

The tribes inhabiting the Baltic Sea VIII-IX c...

The tribes inhabiting the Baltic Sea VIII-IX century (Slavs, Balts.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The research that I had found previously pointed me to Moravia and the Moravian Empire, and a rereading of the original request for help did mention an interest in the Slavs. Checking the dates associated with the area showed that Moravia existed between the time of the great Slavic Migration, which occurred between 450 and 550 AD and the annexation of the area by the Bohemian Empire in AD 973. And that explained everything! Most of the previous requests for information and temple rings that I had had were for earlier Slavic materials. Most of my later Slavic research (13th through 16th century) has been in the areas of Kiev and Novgorod. Then I went looking for information on the exact dates for the creation of Bohemia. Well, I found several sources that agreed that the Duchy of Bohemia was created in 870, but the contradictions between sources about the exact progression of political entities in the area reminded me that this was really NOT something that I was interested in, and had nothing to do with the point of this blog.

If  you are interested in a particular group of people, figure out what the name of their ethnic group is, and skip as much of the later political designations as possible. When archaeologists study groups, they look at their ethnicity, not what country they lived in, and that is how their material will generally be catalogued. If you are looking for archaeological information you can then search for the nearest large museum online, and see if there is any information available. National Museums often have pages available in English, just look for the British Flag at the top of the page.

If you need a basic class in online research, I have an eleven part blog series on my website, called “Researching on the Cheap”. Just go to and choose Nov 2014 in the drop down “Blog Archives” menu in the right column. You can easily reach all eleven episodes from there!

Thimbles Part 2

Last time we asked: But what sort of things do people make thimbles from?

Well, modernly thimbles are made of all sorts of metal, ceramics, glass, plastic, leather, wood, ivory and bone, and combinations of all of the above. Eliminating the obviously non-historically accurate items like plastic takes us back to looking for something practical, available and affordable.

When I started making fibulae in quantity I needed something to protect my thumb from the wire. I grabbed a piece of thick leather and some duct tape, and essentially made a large thimble. Modernly there are still some types of thimbles that are made of leather. Doing a web search for leather thimbles will bring up dozens of different types, some of which include a small metal plate for even more protection. The big problem with leather thimbles is that they wear out much more quickly than metal ones and the chance that they will survive archaeologically in damp climates is slim.

Wood and bone thimbles would have been almost equally easy to make as leather ones, and just as easily lost in the archaeological record.

And this was where I hit a very annoying research wall. I own three books devoted completely to thimbles, one to sewing equipment, and one to The Medieval Household (MOL), and then there are also a couple of websites. I was recently pouring through my books on thimbles, trying to see if I could gather any sort of consensus from them. And I found a picture that made me cringe. It was a picture of “Leather thimbles from Mongolia”. Now I suppose if your definition of a thimble is “anything used to protect a finger” then it would be OK (remember this would include gloves). But the picture showed leather thumb rings that are used for shooting archery. The rest of the book was all sewing related thimbles. Sigh.

And then I went looking for a picture of the Han Dynasty thimble that I see widely reported, but with no pictures. I found one picture of a “thimble” that was found in Turkey that is supposed to “look just like” the Han Dynasty thimble. It was an archer’s thumb ring. So now I am questioning the whole assessment of some of the early thimbles. The websites and the books almost all use identical words. They seem to all suffer from what I would call “academic incest”. Someone wrote something, and everyone else just copied it, without checking to see if it was correct or not.

To say that I was annoyed, was an understatement. SOMEONE out there must have done a creditable job of studying thimbles! And then I remembered that I have one other book – “Findings – The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing” by Mary C. Beaudry. Is it perfect? No. A lot of the comments were a bit ethnocentric for my taste, but the archaeology is solid, and that is what I needed.

So let’s go back to the reason for thimbles: Needles. The first steel needles were invented by the Chinese, for sewing fine silk, and these needles arrived in the Middle East in about the first century BC. Archaeology tells us that the Chinese were using metal needle rings by at least the second century AD. Most of these “rings” were made in the flat, and not soldered. This made them easily adjustable to any size of finger (think of the expandable rings that you can buy at flea markets).

Next time: Thimble Rings

English: A group of thimbles on display in Bed...

English: A group of thimbles on display in Bedford Museum. In the middle of the group is a thimble box with its lid. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lies My Docent Told Me: Part 4

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.

Chi Rho wine strainer

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.