Primary Sources are the ideal resources to use for your Research, no matter what you are researching. As anthropologists and researchers, Galen and I have always had two primary focuses—one on research and the other on teaching from that research. I have had a number of conversations recently while teaching in a non-profit organization, that has me wanting to discuss the technicalities of research vs. the research in and of itself. So often we get bogged down in the research of a thing, that we forget to teach about the how and why of researching.
With over 20 years of experience researching and having a PhD in Anthropology, I know a lot about research. In addition, I have almost 20 years doing research in the context of a non-academic institution. What I have come to realize as a result of these recent conversations is that outside of academia, there are a variety of loose interpretations of how to conduct research and what tools you use. As a result, I wrote a series of blogs focusing on research, and in particular how the everyone can benefit from understanding how research is done in the academic world. Afterall, no matter where you do your research, or what you are doing it for, many of your sources are going to be academic.
Research is essential to the understanding of the past and present. It is a vital part of not only the academic world of Universities and Colleges, but also of Primary Schools, Technological Schools, many non-profit organizations, businesses, medical establishments, and Living History and Re-enactment groups. What has surprised me in my last few years, is that within some of these other organizations, the requirements for research have been more strict than that of academia. While it is beneficial to non-professional researchers to be critical and selective about their sources, limiting themselves more than academic scholarship is detrimental in the long run as it unnecessarily limits the information available.
One of the major ways that I have seen non-academic and academic researchers differ, is in what exactly is considered a primary source. In all areas, primary sources are the gold standard because they are as unfiltered as possible and as direct from that time period as we can get, but depending upon the group, there is a strong tendency to consider a primary source as strictly the material artifact (an extant piece, sometimes even limited to one viewed personally) representative of the item and time period being studied. I have had people tell me that, for example, a photograph of an artifact found in a museum is not a primary source, because it is not the thing (the artifact) but rather a picture of the thing. I have even had someone argue that that same photograph published in a book is now a tertiary source because it is not the thing or even the original photo of the thing but now published version of the thing in another media. Similarly, both I and, my research partner, Galen Scott, have encountered similar disagreements over whether paintings and written accounts from period are considered primary sources.
In anthropology and history, primary sources, in general, are anything that is raw data from the time period in question, which includes a much broader category of sources:
• Extant material artifacts (preserved garments, tablets for tablet weaving, etc.)
• Photographs of material artifacts, including photographs of those artifacts still in the matrix (ground) where they were found.
• Written documents from that time period (writing on monuments, letters, diaries, commonplace books, autobiographies, wills, court documents, treaties, books of law, merchant logs, etc.)
• Visual records (paintings, carvings, and even decorated pottery that depict life in that time period.)
• Ethnographic accounts– descriptions of a culture (ethnography literally means description of a culture) written typically by outsiders.
• Experimental data, including Experimental Archaeology, (The process by which archaeologists attempt to reconstruct techniques used in period by experimenting with reinterpretations of those techniques, analyzing the results, and comparing the results against known extant artifacts when possible.)
The argument we have consistently heard for the heavy focus on the material remains is that the physical artifact is unaffected by outside influences and that all of the other accounts, even photographs, are affected by the lens of the person creating the record. The point that we find is missing here, is that all evidence from past and present is filtered through lenses—if not the lenses of the people at the time and what they wish to record and what goes unsaid, then the filter of what time itself has preserved.
Many aspects of medieval life and practices are vulnerable to the passage of time. Our research on Heian court life is very much hindered by the fact that the Heian era (794-1192 CE) is 1000 years ago, and thus many important elements of court life, from the clothing to the food to the art and literature, are lost to the passage of time. What is preserved tends to be those elements that are considered particularly valuable, and so protected. For example, fires devastated Heian-kyō, the capital city in what is now modern day Kyoto, more than once, including in 1227 CE when the imperial palace was burned down and not rebuilt, and what we know about the its construction and life therefore comes instead from written firsthand accounts.
What extant artifacts we have from early period, including textile arts, were preserved because they were donated to temple repositories, and, as a result, they were spared. The goods that were given to the temples, however, are not necessarily representative of everyday clothing and goods, but rather items considered special enough to give to the temples. In addition, the information on material goods available to us is filtered through the lens of what and where archaeologists chose to focus on.
Historically, archaeologists tend to focus on elite infrastructure (temples, palaces, and the like), graves (particularly graves where grave goods are included), and dense urban areas as these are frequently the richest in artifacts, but disproportionately represent, as a result, the lives of court elites and religious institutions and practices. My own research in early period braids, for example, is hindered by the fact that braids are considered academically a less critical textile art than woven fabric, and so while braids are definitely period and get noted in passing, they are often lost in the shadow of the beautiful dyed, embroidered, and brocaded fabrics of the time period.
Instead of shying away from other primary sources because they are filtered through a lens, I encourage researchers of all types to think critically about those lenses with ALL of the research that they conduct. Why am I seeing this piece? Why might it be preserved? What might have influenced its construction? Even what biases might I be bringing to my interpretation of this particular artifact or practice?
I am reminded of a story I heard—sadly I cannot remember now where—of an archaeologist who was confused about this big pile of carved wooden cones found at a dig. Finally, a woodworker happened to see the photos of the site and start to laugh. He knew exactly what they represented—the woodworker at that site had been making cups on a lathe, and the cones were the waste product.
We all bring lenses to what we see and study; the lenses themselves are not necessarily a bad thing. It is all in how aware we are of them and how we use them.
The Researcher’s Gateway