– A couple of practical tips to get started
– What is meant with primary and secondary resources?
– Recording and recreating material culture
Ideally, the first step into a new project is research. It is so very easy to jump into doing the thing without figuring out how it would have been done in period. But then you might realize along the way it is turning out quite nice and now you would like to enter it in a display or a competition… learning the pitfalls of back-documenting a project first hand. Back-documenting is frustrating but what adds insult to injury is that often a simple change of material or process could have made your project that much closer to an extant example. Unfortunately, many beginner artisans are so intimidated by the perception of documentation that they forgo the step of research as much as possible.
But there’s a big difference between research and documentation. Research is gathering all the cool things so that you can challenge yourself to make it as close to how they would have done as possible. Documentation is taking that research and putting it into a form that you can share with others so that they can enjoy what you learned too, or so that it’s handy the next time you want to do that sort of project. There’s nothing more frustrating than having to back track important references, trying to remember how to start your nalbind stitch, or wondering where the heck you’d found that perfect illustration.
Notice the wording “cool things” and “enjoy what you learned.” Attitude toward your project is really helpful in overcoming blocks about doing your research. Don’t think of it as like the “worst most soul-draining parts of school work.” You’re not doing this to get a grade. You’re doing it to have fun and to share that fun with others.
And you aren’t required to enter it into any contest. Do it for the fun of it! Do it so that you have the information in one place for when you want to do the project again (and don’t want to have to gather all the information all over again). Do it because others might find it just as interesting as you do but were busy researching something else that they, in turn, could share with you!
A couple of practical tips to get started
Identify your topic, and be as specific as possible.
- Ask your local Laurels, A&S Minister.
- Check your Kingdom A&S website, check out of Kingdom A&S websites.
- Check Stefan’s Florilegium, the largest depository of all things SCA A&S
- Find a Facebook Group that covers your topic – and check their FILES section.
- Ask Google. You can ask it specific questions!
- Search a website by adding “: topic” after the hyperlink. For instance, “https://www.garshol.priv.no: kvass” will show any pages using that word.
- Search but exclude certain results. For instance, “kvass -pinterest” will give all other websites on that topic but no Pinterest hits.
- Print useful online information to PDF as websites change and disappear.
- Check back issues of the Compleat Anachronist (no membership needed to order).
- Many libraries offer Inter Library Loans (ILL) for unusual books. Ask your local librarian.
- Want to learn even more? Peruse the documentation & research class handouts.
What is meant with primary and secondary resources?
The labels primary and secondary for sources are an academic distinction. Within the SCA Arts & Sciences, a more useful distinction is whether your source is original, and if not, how close to original you got. Is it the extant piece, the original text, a faithful photos of the artifact or an excavation report? Or is it interpreted, books about the topic, analysis papers, etc. Both sources are important. Raw sources might mislead us because we are missing context or interpreting them wrong, where analyzed sources would introduce the author’s biases.
A primary source has a number of qualifications to be labeled as such. In the case of literary sources; was it created at the time of an event, or very soon after, and was it created by someone who saw or heard an event themselves? In the case of material culture, is it the artifact or extant piece itself, or an image or description? A photograph taken hundreds of years afterwards is technically a secondary source, due to the ravages of time, regardless of the credentials of who took it. A recipe in its original form is a primary source. The translation, unless it was done contemporary to the original, is a secondary source, regardless of who translates it. But if a museum photograph or 16th century translation of a Roman recipe is all there is, or all you can track down, explain that and go for it anyway!
In most cases, it does not matter if you list which sources are primary or secondary. Do not blindly focus only on primary sources. What matters is how you evaluate your sources. A primary source is not necessarily more accurate than a secondary source, especially to the uneducated eye. Then there are the tertiary sources, the “a book about a book about a book”… Much of what can be found online are tertiary sources. In many cases, Wikipedia articles will be tertiary – but their bibliography could list secondary sources. And sometimes, there is no primary source available to us, either because it was lost to history or never written down to begin with. But perhaps there is a similar recipe or surviving translation or object or technique from later times we can base our redaction on. This would make your source a tertiary source – but it may be the best source that we can get. For now.
For people who do not use the terms primary and secondary regularly, the terms can quickly become quickly confusing. Instead, think about evaluating sources in relationship to the end goal of your A&S project. We aim to research and recreate the thing or action as it was done in period. This leads our evaluation of sources. Think of an archery target. The bull’s eye in the center is the thing in its time and place on the day it was created. Shiny and new. We then use the sources available to make educated guesses about what it would look like, be made of. Even extant pieces have weathered centuries and have been to some extent altered from that first day. Focus on solid evidence, from reliable sources, for the materials and construction of the thing. Remember that even extant texts are not always reliable. Trusted sources can be museums, archeological articles, photos of the thing, period descriptions of the thing. Using multiple sources helps us understand the context in which the thing existed, the rings around the bull’s eye.
Of course, we understand it is not always possible to get close up and personal with an extant piece, that not everyone has a travel budget to go visit the Bodleian Library or the Metropolitan, have access to a library with ILL or to academic access. Try to get as close as you can get, even if that is secondary, and who knows, perhaps someday you’ll be able to go visit and see one for real. And remember, you know people! Did you find a perfect archaeological report but have no idea how to get a copy? Ask your laurels, ask online, and often someone else who went through the same can now share with you. We artisans do love to enable each other!
An academic librarian’s view on primary and secondary sources:
Primary Sources by Mord Hrutsson
Are you intimidated by large and seemingly complex projects? Baron Caleb suggests Micro-research, or small papers about limited topics. He writes that he “has heard, over the years, from many SCAdians that they just do not have the skills or patience to sit down and write a research paper and, by extension, write documentation for an A&S project. There appears to be an unfounded fear that documentation, or a research paper, has to be 100 pages long and ready to be published in a peer-reviewed journal. This is not the case. No one in the SCA expects every person in the SCA to spend a year or more writing a paper. But this fear does keep many people from even trying their hand at doing some research and some writing. Huge research papers are nice, but they are not for everyone. Also, large papers are too long to be published in local newsletters, and newsletters are always looking for articles for publication.”
Read further in Baron Caleb’s essay “So You Think You Can’t Do Any Research?” (2022)
Recording and recreating material culture
An excellent example of how to approach the recreation of historic material culture by Mistress Phiala can be found in her mundane article “Planning a Recreation: Weaving a Siksälä Shaw” (2020)