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Studying People in the Past: Archaeologists’ and Historians’ Approaches
A historian is a person whose work is to study in depth the people, as well as the events of the past. He, thereafter, documents his findings in written form. In the study of people, the historian seeks to know the way of life of the people. He also seeks to know the events that occurred around these people. Additionally, he enquires about what happened and the reasons for the happenings in their lives. Historians also study the likely results of the events (Toyin & Christian, 2003).
An archaeologist, on the other hand, is a scientist. Even though he studies about the past, more often he does not have any written records to rely on. In order to learn about the ancient civilizations, archaeologists analyze the things left by these people. With these, they are able to find clues about their way of life. Such items include, for example, painted rocks, drawings in caves and many other forms life-sustaining activities of the people. These articles are called artifacts. An archaeologist's life, therefore, revolves around collection, analysis and preservation of these artifacts (Toyin et al, 2003).
In this essay, we are going to critically analyze and explain the different methods used by historians and archaeologists in the study of people in the past. Moreover, the goal of this essay is to establish the aspect of this historical and archaeological research that is more valuable. This will involve a critical look at the application of written records and physical ephemera.
To start with, it is necessary to emphasize that the historian's purpose is to understand the past. The events of the past have a huge bearing on the present, as well as the future dealings of the society. There are three main tools that historians apply in their quest to gather evidence about the past events and the life of the people. These include the primary sources, the secondary sources, as well as the oral history.
A primary source is anything that is written or created by a person who witnessed a historical event first hand. These may include things like letters, photographs, videos, diaries, as well as speeches. Additionally, artifacts such as working tools or weapons are also counted under the primary sources. Secondary sources are usually written well after an event has occurred by people who never had the chance of seeing the event. These include historical books, paintings and even journals. These secondary sources are usually based on the evidence of the primary sources. The oral history is mainly composed of spoken stories about events. They come very handy in the study of cultures, which do not posses any records in written form. These oral histories are passed down from one generation to the next. They include narratives, songs, customs, wise sayings and even oral poetry.
For a more detailed analysis, it is essential to examine the methods involved in these three tools applied by historians. In order to provide the precise information about the past times, the dates or the times when events occur must be known. The historians are, therefore, obliged to measure time and, thereafter, organize it in understandable bits. In measuring time, historians make use of dating of events and calendars. The calendars are available in most cultures around the globe. The cultures base their calendars on the important events which occur in the history. The Christians, for example, begin to reckon their time at the birth of Jesus Christ. Years before the birth of Jesus are known as "B.C." that is before Christ. The years after the birth are called Anno Domini or "A.D.". The Muslim calendar, on the other hand, begins at the birth of Muhammad in A.D. 622. In dating events, for example, before the birth of Christ, historians count backwards from A.D. 1 (Barbara, 2000).
The historians organize time by dividing it into eras or periods. These can be a decade, a ten-year period, or a century, that is a hundred years. Centuries are further grouped in to longer periods. The first of these long eras is referred to as prehistory. This is the time when people had not developed writing. The last thing the historians make in understanding the time of occurrence of events is the timeline. A timeline is a diagram drawn by historians in order to show the order of events within an era. The next thing that is involved in the study of people is the gathering of evidence. By analyzing both the primary and secondary sources named before, historians are able to determine the place and time of the occurrence of events. They can also be able to know the intention of the documents whether they were meant for the public or were to be kept secret. The other aspect of these secondary sources that a historian has to critically check is the credibility of the source.
Cause and effect tie together historical events. Cause is what leads to the happening of an event. Effect is the event that happens because of the cause. The connection between cause and effect is critical to historians since it helps them in explaining the reasons why things happen. The historians also study the geographical effects on people. These are usually made clear by the different routes of migration taken by people (Barbara, 2000).
Archaeologists, on the other hand, study bones of animals and human beings, trees and seeds in their study of history. They also study weapons, tools used for various purposes, as well as pottery. In other instances, mounds, pits and canals are studied. The main reason for their reliance on these artifacts is the fact that in prehistory, it is impossible to find any written information about the lives of people. Archaeologists apply different methods in gathering data for analysis. They conduct surveys of historical sites on foot. They can also take photographs from satellites. In places where they have to look for clues under the water, they make use of sonar scanning. Moreover, archaeologists use ground-penetrating radars and at times, dig for evidence underground. In dating objects, they often carry out microscopic and biological tests. Dead organisms are, on the other hand, dated using the well known carbon 14 levels.
In relation to the work of a historian, it is quite evident that he relies more on the written evidence. This is because he cannot draw accurate conclusions from the physical ephemera. In contrast, an archaeologist solely relies on the physical ephemera since written evidence is scarcely present, which can explain the prehistoric events.