Part 1 – Defining our sources

Part 2 – How to use your documentation

Part 3 – Where do I find all that really neat stuff?

Part 1 – Defining Our Sources

Part 1 of this article was first published in Dies Mali Dragoman, August 1998. Dies Mali Dragoman is the local newsletter for the SCA Shire of Dismal Fogs (Blue Mountains, NSW Australia)

After being asked what constitutes acceptable documentation, I felt that an article on the art of documentation might help our newer members. What follows is a brief description of documentation types, as I understand it. I welcome any correspondence on this subject, particularly if you wish to refute any comments I have made.

Firstly, we hear lots about sources. This is the backbone of your research / documentation. There are three types of sources, called primary, secondary and tertiary.

Primary sources are actual period artefacts or documents. With more and more new archaeological research becoming available, primary sources are becoming much more readily available. One of the best examples I can think of is the work of Janet Arnold restoring Elizabethan Era garments. The patterns and techniques shown from period garment are priceless in terms of our reconstructions. Other items like museum photos, etc are also important for developing the correct style for any item we create. Another important primary source is any manual or instruction book from period. The cookbooks we recreate our recipes from fall into this category.

Secondary sources are drawings, paintings etc, either from period or after period, which depict items we are researching. Thus the brooch you spy from a miniature and want to make for yourself is documented from a secondary source. These depictions are secondary because they are the interpretation of the artist who made that depiction. It is important to realise that occasionally artworks are allegorical, so some works will not be suitable for documentation purposes. Discussions of period documents in academic research also tend to be secondary sources. (Once again, an interpretational bias can sneak in.)

Lastly, tertiary documentation is the least reliable of documentation. Basically this is someone’s drawing of a drawing (There are other possibilities but this is the easiest way to describe it). The possibility for reinterpretation is very high. However, sometimes this is the only clue we have to go on. Its reliability hinges on the research of the writer of your source material. Much of the common place name documentation used by the College of Arms utilises tertiary documentation. An example of good tertiary documentation is Withycombe’s Dictionary of English Names. Much of her original research has been validated and found to be correct. Tertiary sources are shaky alone, but are very good for refining or corroborating other research material. In general, I am not comfortable with tertiary sources unless I have supporting documentation. (OK, so I’m picky, but a Uni education trains you to think in certain patterns regarding research!)

Now we know what are sources are, it should be apparent what their order of acceptability is. Primary sources are first choice; Secondary sources are good for when primary sources are unavailable; and tertiary sources are acceptable with corroborating evidence. Now that we understand research sources, we can discuss how to use our documentation. This of course will be dealt with next issue.

Part 2 – How to use your documentation

Part 2 of this article was first published in Dies Mali Dragoman, October 1998. Dies Mali Dragoman is the local newsletter for the SCA Shire of Dismal Fogs (Blue Mountains, NSW Australia)

Last issue I discussed documentation sources. I didn’t receive any counter-correspondence so what I wrote must correlate to what most people think regarding that issue. This issue I’ll be looking at how we utilise our documentation.

There are two philosophical approaches to using documentation – the School of Item Replication, and the School of Style Reproduction. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and they both rely on good quality research.

The School of Item Replication is a term I use to describe the process of replicating exactly a period item held in a museum or collection, and possibly shown in a period picture. There is a great deal of art and skill that goes into this pursuit, which is very heavily reliant on accurate quality research. An example is if you make an exact copy of the Coppergate Helmet (with a slight size adjustment), or a piece of jewellery etc. This involves getting accurate research with quality photos / depictions of the item in question. This research should detail things like the method of construction, materials used, accurate measurements of the original etc. This is a very detailed and narrowly focused research effort that can produce exceptionally exquisite items. Some of the work done by scribes replicating pages from a Book of Hours comes to mind. Working to this method is what I consider a two edged proposition, the detail of the research will always validate the authenticity of a particular item, however poor execution can lead to effectively negating the quality of the research. It also precludes the opportunity for individual artistic expression and interpretation.

The School of Style Reproduction is much more wide ranging in its research efforts. If you are like me, and prefer to have the scope to make your own artistic interpretation, then this research style may be for you. The backbone to this method involves collecting as much documentation as you can find that covers the area you are interested in, and then collating it to develop a picture of the overall trends or common themes for that item in question. The art here is in developing a coherent interpretation of what constitutes the generic style for the item in question, from the collective research you have at that time. This is also a ‘living’ research effort, as the model you develop will be enhanced or modified by any new research you turn up. For example, say I was researching Byzantine clothing (OK, so I’m working from my specialty!), I would collect as many examples and descriptions etc of Byzantine clothing I could find. I would then start to look at my material collectively, looking for common items, such as the sleeve types shown ie tight or loose, the common tunic length, usual decoration styling etc. All the items that I would need to develop a model for what would constitute typical Byzantine clothing. With more research you can also start to develop an understanding of how the style changed over time, basically build up a progressive picture of your subject. Once you are confident of your model’s reliability, you can then design your item within the constraints of that model, and still have opportunity to insert or develop some of your own artistic ideas when you make the item. It also means that your item will be artistically different to other peoples work, whilst retaining the period accuracy incorporated into your research model. This means that you won’t go to an event and see someone with exactly the same helmet, dress etc as can occasionally happen with the previous method. However it also opens you up to interesting questions regarding the validity of your model, if someone else has knowledge of an area you neglected in your research.

As you can see, documentation is an art as suggested in the title for this series of articles. As always, I welcome discussion, so if anyone else has ideas or questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me, or write me (I’ll do anything to get someone else to write material!). Right, now that we’ve discussed sources of documentation and how to use the documentation, I think next issue we’ll look at locating documentation, or the big question of where do I find all the really neat stuff other people find?

Part 3 – Where do I find all that really neat stuff?

Part 3 of this article was first published in Dies Mali Dragoman, December 1998. Dies Mali Dragoman is the local newsletter for the SCA Shire of Dismal Fogs (Blue Mountains, NSW Australia)

This issue we look at the actual legwork side of documentation, tracking down the information. Basically, an answer to the question of “where do I find all that really neat stuff?”

Firstly, before you do anything else, plan what you want to document. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But it will save you an incredible amount of otherwise wasted time. You need to decide what exactly you are looking for. For instance, if it’s a costume, do you want just a picture, or have you got a specific region or period in mind, or are you after patterns, or are you after documentation on fabric types used? That only covers the smallest part of what you could have in mind, the key here is to work out what you want to do, then decide the sort of information you want or need to be able to achieve your goal. I cannot emphasis greater how important this step is, this single step of planning will determine the ultimate success of what you achieve.

OK, we’ve set ourselves a framework to begin searching for documentation. This is where the different types of documentation come into play. Believe it not, tertiary sources are often the best places to start, because they can help give you an overview to use to further refine your research. I’m talking here about the big coffee table books, that treat the subject in a general sort of way, the readily available material in your local library, or possibly on your own bookshelf. The best part of these sources is their bibliography, or further reading lists. You can try to chase this material down, and examine it without the bias present in your tertiary source. This in turn will lead you on to other material, which will lead you on further… eventually you come back to some form of primary source, this search trail can be categorized as going from a general overview to a focussed view. I tend to prefer to see how it all fits together in the big picture as well, as nothing in history has ever occurred in a vacuum. The concept here is wholistic accuracy, since a mish mash across several periods and cultures may be accurate on an individual item basis, the overall picture is just plain wrong. Remember that we are working to a ‘functional’ end, to document our next planned project. Admittedly, you find fascinating side information on the way, but we have that planned goal we set to remember as well.

Naturally, you will find yourself rolling up at a library. Libraries can be mind boggling useful places, or torture halls of frustration. The key here is to learn to recognise the relative usefulness of individual libraries. Local libraries run by Councils are great for encyclopaedias, general reference materials, and art book collections, basic information that can get you started. Do not underestimate the power of the local library, it’s convenient and usually a good starting point since most of them operate outside business hours, an oft-neglected consideration. (Inaccessible information is worse than useless in my opinion!) That and you should be able to easily get borrowing privileges. There is nothing like being able to take a book home to scrutinize it properly when you have time.

My next statement applies to all libraries in general. Learn to use the library catalogue or index (different libraries use different terms). Nearly all libraries these days have computerized catalogues, which is exceptionally useful. Not only does it tell you the contents of a library, it will tell you if the particular item is in stock, and is searchable on a subject basis. That’s right, some kind librarian has categorized the library for you! When you note the item you are after, make sure you note the author, the title, as well as the call number. I find frequently, that items are misplaced on the shelves but a quick scan in the general area using the recorded details usually turns up missing items. Also, have a quick look at items near your required item, sometimes they will also be on the same or related area. If in doubt on where an item is, ask the librarian. Librarians are amazingly helpful if you ask politely for help finding information. Sometimes they can even direct you to information you had no idea was relevant. When searching subject databases, it also helps to use the system to their full capabilities. Often they allow for ‘wildcard’ characters, which is more efficient then typing a set of related words. For example, you are looking for say Byzantine mosaic information, it may have relevant information categorized as Mosaics – Byzantine, or Byzantium -Mosaics etc, but a wildcard search of Byzant# (# = wildcard character) will pull up references to Byzantine or Byzantium etc. Much less tedious than having to type all possible permutations isn’t it? This is a case of where technology is your friend. Computers also tend to cross reference to subjects you wouldn’t dream was relevant or even known existed. For instance, I once went looking for information on tents, and sure enough there was a subject listing for tents, but it also gave me cross-references to the related areas of yurts and tensile architecture!

OK, so you’ve exhausted the possibilities of your own library, the local library and your friends’ libraries. Next step is to hit the big libraries at Universities, or State or Museum libraries. These are typically research or academic libraries, designed and set up so poor academics can continue their studies, PhD’s etc. The depth of material here can be staggering, depending on the specialties of the particular university or institution. Most of these libraries also open outside business hours, but some of them don’t. Always try to find out the operating hours before you go as it may require a special trip during time off work etc. These libraries usually provide much more detailed information than your local library. For instance, I could quite easily determine that Islamic clothing was decorated by tiraz from information at my local libraries, but at Sydney Uni library, I find a whole treatise on tiraz, what it meant, how it was designed, applied etc. Detailed information I can apply in recreating an Islamic garment. The key to remember here is that a Uni library specializing in medicine probably won’t have a lot of information on armour, but an arts library or museum library will be a better bet.

Research libraries are also repositories for journals. Journals will contain numerous articles on a wide range of topics, within a broad focus. There is most probably a journal covering every different subject known to man. This plethora of information is one of the hardest to search, as it is so diverse. Fortunately, academia has the same problem, so a convenient service called an abstracting service has been developed. Abstracting services basically get a hold of all the relevant journals to their focus area, and develop an index to the articles contained therein, and usually provide an abstract or synopsis to what the article is about. In some cases this is available as a set of hardcopy indices, and others it is available as a searchable computer database. This is one of those areas where it pays to ask the librarians, they can show you where the indices are, and often how to search them. Why bother you ask? Well, journal articles are typically written by experts in their field, and are very precise in the area and information they contain. You may well find a journal article titled “The use of purple feathers in the hats of 15th Century Ruritanian women during Easter”, which means you don’t have to re-research the wheel so to speak. We are talking on the whole about very specific information, which are usually only found in journals. This is also where you find discussions of archaeological artifacts, measurements, construction etc.

One important thing to remember about all of this is if you find something useful, make a copy of it. Finding the information is only half the job, having it available to refer back to is just as important. Whether you buy a copy of the book / article etc, or photocopy the relevant information, whatever, just make a copy of it. No one will remember exactly a picture or the article details, but if you have a copy you can always refer back to it while you make your project. I also find that I can look at something 15-16 times, but on the 17th time notice some detail I’d completely missed previously. You’ll notice I haven’t said anything about evaluating information, only you can do that since you set the purpose right at the start. With practice, you do get to the stage where you can decide quickly whether or not you want to use a source, sometimes I find it helps to read it later when I’m feeling less rushed etc. which is why I recommend copying the information you find. The thing to remember is that you are working towards that goal we set right at the start.

Lastly, when you have found some really good information, share it around, talk to people, and discuss the ramifications. The insights of fellow re-enactors can be just as useful when you go to make something, and sometimes they can point out a glaring error or omission in your research. (Like say the date next to that Turkish coat is in the Islamic calendar, not the standard calendar!) The other important bit of documentation I didn’t mention is those “How to…” books. There’s not much point in learning 10th Century Islamic socks were knitted if you can’t knit! The bulk of this article this issue has been on the science of finding documentation, the art comes in evaluating its usefulness.

Well, we’ve looked at documentation types, how we can apply it, how we find it, which leaves the final area of putting it all together to get the project done. Which of course we’ll cover next issue.

NOTE: I never did get around to writing up Part 4. Many people around the web have written this up very well. I suggest doing a search for Documenting SCA project.


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