One of the great difficulties with historic research is being able to put archeological material, especially written material, into the correct cultural context – to understand what it meant at the time. Too often we draw inferences based on our own contemporary cultural perspectives and use of language. Particularly if we have grown up immersed in a single culture, it may not even occur to us that there is another way of looking at things.
Yet this is an area where historical research can have a profound impact on modern society and its ability to handle cross-cultural misunderstandings and conflicts – simply by acknowledging that there is a different way of looking at things, that there are concepts and words that cannot be easily or precisely translated between languages and cultures.
Anyone who becomes fluent in a second language has probably had the experience of thinking or dreaming in that language, and not being able to exactly translate these back into their first language. Umberto Eco, probably best known to medievalists as the author of novels The Name of the Rose and Baudolino, discusses this phenomenon in detail in his book Experiences in Translation (University of Toronto Press, 2008). He has an arduous writing style, and the book is extremely hard going if you are not at least minimally fluent in French, Italian and German, because he uses examples from these languages to illustrate his points, but you can get the gist of what he is saying nonetheless.
Another, more easily understood discussion is contained in this ABC Radio National article Were the ancient Greeks and Romans colour blind? in which Mark Bradley, Associate Professor of Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, talks about the writings of the ancient Greek Homer. He asserts that many of the descriptive words or phrases that have previously been interpreted as referring only to colour – in the modern, chromatic sense – are more accurately interpreted as synaesthetic descriptions intended to capture other qualities in addition to colour alone. This can be compared to the way in which modern poets use metaphor to capture the essence of a situation, rather than using concrete, literal descriptions.
By contrast, descriptions which were thought to be merely poetic can sometimes be shown to be more literal, based on new scientific evidence, as in the case of the ancient blue dye tekhelet which is described in the Torah as being used to dye the fringes and tassels on specific Hebrew prayer garments. This article and this one talk about recent archaeological finds and their interpretation.
In addition to the purely written word, pronunciation can have a have a profound effect on meaning, bringing into play rhymes, puns and other word play which expand on the single-word interpretation. This short video clip: Shakespeare: original pronunciation gives a number of examples.
In the case of material objects which may have been shifted or partly destroyed by burial or storage conditions over hundreds of years, filling in the missing pieces based on assumptions of context and usage can lead to wildly differing and highly disputed interpretations of the whole. One example is this highly contentious interpretation of women’s Norse clothing. A less disputed example of re-interpretation of evidence in context is the reconstruction of the cutting layout for the pourpoint of Charles du Blois, which is explained on the basis of the garment having been cut and pieced from a small and narrow length of fabric for which the author was then able to give dimensions.
The underlying message is that in historical and archeological research and re-enactment, it is important to be aware of the cultural context of objects and practices, and also to be aware that our understanding of this context may change over time based on new evidence. Reading widely around your chosen field of research is important, even if the information does not apply directly to your own area of interest; as is keeping abreast of new discoveries and new interpretations. There are a number of useful archaeology news sites that can help keep you up to date. Below are just a few of the ones I follow. The short articles on the sites are usually linked to an original report or scientific research paper.