archaeology · historiography · History · reconstructionism

This is why checking primary sources matters

Yesterday I ran across a perfect example of why it’s always dangerous to rely on what people say about historical sources, rather than going back and fact-checking. Sometimes, the sources don’t say what the modern scholar says they say. (In fact, I wrote a whole paper on the subject, debunking a claim about Augustines City of God in a modern scholarly book on pagan Europe, as part of my work in the Troth Loremaster program.)

But the example I have in mind is much simpler than having to slog through hundreds of pages of Augustine to prove a negative. This involves a paper written by T. C. Lethbridge in The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland Vol. 83, No. 2 (Jul. – Dec., 1953), pp. 175-181, available via JSTOR (readable with a free account), entitled Christian Saints or Pagan Gods? The Lough Erne Figures. I’m doing some research on Christian saints that had their origin in Heathen deities, so this seemed interesting.

Now, the author makes the following statement about one of the figures:

One of them, that of a male (a), is claimed to have a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing. He is therefore Saint Patrick. The bell, however, on inspection appears to be a typical Irish short-sword; the crozier may be a scepter or some other wand of office and the man appears to be stroking his chin in thought. There is nothing about him to suggest that he is a saint.

Fine. Fair enough. And the author has also included some illustrations to make his point clear:

In Fig. 1 I have drawn five of the figures (a-e) after a study of various photographs, omitting such signs of weathering as seem to obscure the details of the carving. I have not included the carving of a single isolated head on a flat stone slab, because it does not appear to belong to the same series as the others and may not even be of the same date. Two other fragments may be architectural.

Great! Now we can see exactly what he’s talking about in his Figure a:

Copyright (c) JSTOR
And his Figure a does indeed look the way he described it; sword, wand, hand on chin. But here’s where the problem comes in. Not having heard of the Lough Erne Figures (also known as the White Island Figures), I checked to see if there were any photographs of them to be found. And indeed there are. Here’s a great one:
Photo by Jim Dempsey
Off to the right we see the disembodied head and an unfinished figure that could be the “architectural feature” the author mentions. But do you see a figure that “has a crozier in his hand and a bell, and to be in the attitude of cursing”? Yes; the third figure from the left (the largest one, in fact). But that’s not the one the author was discussing!! His Figure a is the one next to the one with the crozier and the bell!
All of his analysis in that section I quoted was based on looking at the wrong figure.
My best guess (and it’s only a guess) is that, since the author was working off of photographs, he simply didn’t have a complete selection of photographs, and was trying to make the best sense he could of a written description that didn’t jive with the visual evidence. Because he was missing the crucial photograph that would have let everything fall into place.
The moral of the story being, when you’re reading a scholarly article or a book, never take for granted that what the author tells you something means, is accurate. Dig into the footnotes. Read the quotes in context. And if the primary sources don’t agree with what the modern author says they mean, don’t assume he knows better than you do, even if he’s published in the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland and you’re not.

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