Tuesday, December 27, 2016

On Archaeological Scholarship and Resources

A heard a brief comment today in one of my MOOCs, but it is one which I believe deserves a bit more attention.  Specifically, references were made to how we attribute various historical or archaeological "facts".  This is particularly important as one assumption often leads to another. Therefore as the computer scientists like to say, "Junk in junk out".

Let me explain more precisely.  None of us where around thousands of years ago so the "facts" upon which we predicate our conclusions are extremely important.  So how do we determine what to rely upon and what to discredit (in whole or in part)?  Well, the first scholarly thing to do is to search out primary sources.  These are those sources that are chronologically contemporary with or close to the event we are trying to validate.  Then it is prudent to seek other corroborating testimonies or sources so that all of our assumptions do not depend on one artifact or resource.

Secondary resources while somewhat useful for corroboration can be tainted by historical events which occurred after the actual or "real" event.  For example, we have all heard of revisionist history and that "history is written by the victors".  Many times in history the victors have even sought to wipe the slate clean of all mention of their predecessors or claim the others' accomplishments for their own.

In short, whether writing a paper, putting an artifact in context, or reading a secondary copy of a text consider the attribution of the source and its chronological juxtaposition and historical context.  I often wonder today as I watch what will become history unfold how it will be written and when I hear something falsely reported I want to jump up and say, "But that's NOT how it happened!"  How will they know that if they read it 200 years from now? 500?  1,000?  I hope they stop and analyze and so should we.

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