Evaluating the Validity of Historical Documents & Narratives

Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Historians have to analyze a great deal of data in order to find out what sources are worthwhile. However, many sources may not be valid. This lesson explains how historians are able to find out which sources are worth their attention.

Two Historic Finds

Let's say that you are a historian specializing in Roman history. One day, two different archaeologists show up with a sample coin, each claiming to have found the location of the mint that made coins celebrating Caesar's defeat of the Celts. Both archaeologists are claiming to have found two different sites, and it's up to you to use your knowledge of Roman history to solve the dispute.

Roman coin
Roman Coin

So you start to look at the coins, and you notice something immediately. One coin doesn't have a year on it! Instead, it just says 'In the year of the consul.' The other coin, on the other hand, has the year 45 BC on it. Immediately, you announce that the coin claiming to be from 45 BC is a fake, as the Romans had no way of knowing how many years before the time change (from BC to AD) that a particular date was when the coin was minted!

Problems with Dates, Pottery, and Money

The above example sounds a little far-fetched, but historians often have to analyze just how reliable a given source is, even before they start to worry about things like biases or hidden agendas. In the case above, the wrong style of date was a red flag that the coin was a fake. The same could have been the case even had it said a number and then the month, as the Romans used a different calendar than we do today.

Alternatively, it's not just the date that could cause such a concern. If the coin depicts anything, such as an ear of corn, that had not yet been introduced to a particular people or place, then it is also cause for skepticism. The same goes for the techniques to actually make the coin or any other artifact - after all, technologies used to create advanced metals and other goods have changed throughout time as well.

While coins are often useful for historians in this regard, they are not alone. Another great example of using non-textual sources to date information comes from pottery. Just as our fashions change today (few of us would be caught in a hoop skirt), so too did the fashions of the ancients change. Different colors of pottery glaze date to different periods of history. If we know that a color of glaze was unpopular during a certain period, such as red glazes during certain parts of Greek history, we can assume that a red-glazed pot is not from that time period.

Textual Issues

But, what about those sources that are text-based? Are they to be taken at face value? Maybe, but maybe not! These documents have to be analyzed for the same omissions in style and substance as non-text sources. In some ways, this is easier - after all, it takes little special training in order to tell that something written in ancient Akkadian would have nothing to do with modern history. In other ways, it is much trickier - after all, sometimes people go out of their way to create sources and documents that sound legitimate, but actually have no factual basis.

A great example of this is the Tanaka Memorial, a document that was claimed to have been written by the Japanese government in the years prior to World War II (WWII). The Tanaka Memorial document supposedly included the Japanese plan for world conquest in the years before WWII. Needless to say, such an aggressive document caused concern from those who it named on the 'to conquer' list, namely China and the United States!

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