Friday, May 17, 2013

Academics, Archeologists, Professionals & Weekend Researchers

Is it strange that most of my rant-posts come from Things People Have Said in online forums/groups?

Today got me thinking about Who The Experts Are, and who they aren't in terms of studying history, recreating it, etc.  I got thinking about what "qualifications" are.

I'll include college professors, published historians, museum specialists & those who both study and publish their findings in journals, books, etc.
Obviously published academics in any given field fall into the Expert category, though many are specialists vs. generalists, which is good!  They have a remarkable ability to shed light on a few aspects of life at a certain time & place, and while other aspects may escape them, their work in that area is invaluable especially for the generalist. 

On the down-side (also an up-side), just about anyone can publish today, and unless there is a period of peer review pre-publication, the work may have areas that are highly suspect.  One example of this is using Victorian Era sources as major references.  While many are excellent, there was a general trend at the time to "fill in" missing information with speculation, opinions & outright fabrications to bulk out the book - ur, umm, I mean "findings."  That work will also be colored by the author's academic environment (ie. politics), which is something to read with caution.  Humm... sounds familiar...  BUT, the moral of the story is, we have to be careful what we take as truth from literary sources & what we take as opinion or fabrication.
The best academics look at primary sources.  Actual literature of the time, first hand accounts, etc. 
Note: I just finished reading an excellent translation of an old manuscript where the translators took literally half the book to apologize for the original author's attitude toward women.  After reading the actual translation, I found the author to be a totally normal man of his time and while he might have made a modern woman a little flustered, it certainly wasn't cause for actual hurling of knives or general verbal evisceration. 

Which brings me to...
Archeologists!  (and pathologists, biologists, & whatever other "ologist" you can think of)
I do love archeologists.  Wonderful people who have the Best Time Ever digging in the mud with garden trowels & paint brushes and then sifting literally tons of dirt for some speck of metal/wood/fabric/glass/bone that Means Something.  Most excellent people!  (oh, and their slaves too- I mean Interns! Yes Interns... that's the right word...)
Definitely experts, though you'll probably go home with a stomach ache from laughing so hard after you talk to them.  They certainly have their own sense of humor (which is often edited out in their final publications).

The downside of archeological publications is that archeologists, like other people, come in different flavors.  - You have the minimalists, who write like a police report.  Just the facts, ma'am.  (I actually like them quite a bit).
- You have the moderates, who give facts, a bit of context & maybe some speculation as to use, etc. around the object being discussed; they might link said item to similar items found Here.  (I also greatly appreciate them).
- Then you have the dreamers, who give the facts, but then completely overshadow them in speculation, assumptions & embroidered stories about who/what/when/where/why/how and what they were thinking.  (While fun to read, I cringe at this Victorian-ish writing style because it leaves so much room for error... much like the Always/Never folks).  This is not to say that Dreamers aren't good archeologists, they just aren't very good writers... or rather they ARE very good writers, but they like stories a bit too much for my taste. 

These first two categories are Experts, no matter if you agree with their conclusions/findings or not.  These are the people from whom all others derive their knowledge.  They are the base of the pyramid of history, so to speak.

The Pros:
The next level of historic research is the Professionals.  This includes Experimental Archeologists, Craftsmen, Artisans, independent researchers (who can be just as good if not better than academics) and people who do Talks/Demonstrations.

There is a wide variety of competence in this category: you have everything from "The Guy At The Country Village Who Bangs Out Horseshoes Once A Month" to "Scott the Gunsmith who makes hand-forged barrels, locks & stocks based on decades of research, different forging techniques & skill... and sells them for more money than I want to contemplate anyone ever spending on a firearm, but will teach a weekend history class that's worth more than a college education."  (Can you tell that I like Scott?).

The long & short of it is that professionals make their living from selling their products, often based on years of research and skill development.  While not all professionals are experts, many are, and what they have to say about their area of expertise should not be discounted.  If you see someone who makes magnificent reproductions, don't hesitate to talk to them - they are a treasure trove of knowledge.  Let the junk dealers sort themselves out (they have their place & they do fine in it).

Weekend Researchers / Amateur Historians:
This category has the widest range of competence in it.  Many people will focus in on one area of history (like fashion or wars or one battle in a war), and stay there.  They become experts in that one thing and that's good enough.  Others are generalists & want to see the flow and context of societies.  They tend to get the gist of history, and are no less expert in that capacity than the others.
Some people will claim expert status based on having read one history book after college, or having joined some history club or other.  Others won't ever share their interests but have more knowledge in the library of their skulls than Alexandria ever thought of containing.

Perhaps the point in this bit of a ramble is that you never know who will fall into the Expert category and who won't based on an online profile, academic title or what history club someone belongs to.  The chick you just cut down for not being a Laurel in the SCA is one of the premier silver smiths at Colonial Williamsburg.  Just because you don't know her & she doesn't hold a familiar title doesn't mean she doesn't know what she's talking about.  Insulting someone who doesn't have a PhD, but has dedicated their life to experimental archeology - planting, growing, harvesting, processing, spinning & weaving flax into linen just to do it, one thing among the 1,000 things they've done... well, they deserve respect for doing it, and you may want to listen to them relay their real-world experiences. 

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