Tuesday, December 1, 2009

On Primary Sources and Researching

Every history class I've ever taken has extolled the virtues of the primary source -- accounts from people who were actually present at historical events as they were taking place, or had access to people who were present at said event.

For example, the journal of a soldier who was present at the Battle of Antietam is worth more than a newspaper account of the battle, which is worth more than a history book written five years later, which is worth more than a history textbook written 100 years later. You understand my point, of course.

I was lucky enough to find Modern Steam Engines by Joshua Rose, which was originally written in 1887, and counts as a decent primary source for extant steam engineering knowledge of the period. For the period circa the 3rd Century BCE Siege of Syracuse, we have Polybius (c. 203-122 BCE), who had access to the survivors of the event and (thankfully) was the father of painstaking scholarly research and objective recording of history. Similarly, for the Final War of the Roman Republic (32 BCE - 30 BCE), the only historian who lived at the time was a Greek named Strabo.

Of course, knowing the names of the ancient sources can only take me so far. This is because probably 60 percent of what was written before the fall of the Roman Empire has been lost for a variety of reasons. Fire, war, age of manuscript itself; you name it, it's a reason for some source to have entirely disappeared.

Case in point: Ctesibius, the father of pneumatic science, wrote a treatise called On Pneumatics wherein his work on that topic was detailed. The text is completely lost, and remains only as a work referenced by later writers (i.e. Hero of Alexandria and Vitruvius). Because we don't have Ctesibius's own writings, there's no way to substantiate the reported theory that Ctesibius created a cannon fueled by compressed air, which would help tremendously with my steampunk aspirations in the aforementioned Roman war.

My historical-fiction writer pals know what I'm talking about (including those writing in Classical Athens, Ancient Egypt, and the Middle Ages), and I'm rapidly discovering that the best resources I have are contemporary scholars who summarize what fragments there are into useful information. Thankfully, we're living in a time when the engineering, science, medicine, and society of the period before the fourth century AD has been exhaustively researched by people who are leagues smarter than me.

Mr. Corby recently suggested The Archaeology of Weapons as a resource. The book catalogs weaponry used from the earliest archaeological evidence in existence all the way up through the knights. Tre useful.

So what about you, my fine blog readers? What do you find is your best resource?


L. T. Host said...


No, seriously.

I friggin' love Wikipedia. 99% of the time, the things I'm researching aren't exactly the fodder for pranksters, so I trust it more than not.

Failing that, university websites are awesome and often have tons of info for free.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I'm a history teacher so of course I extol the virtues of primary sources. That said, there aren't a whole heck of a lot of them from Ancient Egypt.

My favorite resource for writing HATSHEPSUT was a book by Joyce Tyldesley called Hatchepsut (weird spelling). It's secondary, but has virtually every primary source referencing Hatshepsut included. The sources from Egypt's New Kingdom are mainly tomb walls and monument inscriptions, but there are some papyri detailing cool info on every day life.

And Gary's suggestion on the Archaeology of Weapons sounds awesome, way better than what I had in my library on the subject!

Matthew Delman said...

L.T. --

Wikipedia's good to a point. But, as was pointed out to me recently once again, because anyone can edit it, there's a large chance that some wacko can go in and make changes with the intent to spread an unsubstantiated rumor.

Stephanie --

I figured the history teacher would like my praising of primary sources. :)

Joshua McCune said...

Wikipedia's actually got pretty decent quality control. I had a friend go in and edit a spot about Portland Trailblazers' announcers. It was more an op-ed edit, and an hour later it was taken down and he was sent a mild rebuke.

I was fairly impressed. Of course, that was a black and white issue, whereas historical gray zones are definitely subject to greater misconstructional license.

Adam Heine said...

I use Wikipedia primarily. When I do research, mostly I just want something that's "good enough." I'm not writing historical fiction, so I just need to know if what I'm thinking is plausible, whether or not it actually happened.

And Bane's right about WP's quality control. Anyone can go in and make changes, but those changes pop up in the inboxes of various editors and moderators who may or may not leave it be. That doesn't mean it's perfect, but for what it is, it's pretty dang awesome.

Davin Malasarn said...

So far for everything I've had to write, I've referred to actual people and photographs. I've yet to do much historical research because I tend to focus on modern times and neighborhoods that I'm familiar with. But, I find that the more I write, the more new places I want to explore, so I think I'll be doing more research over time.