What is the Nature of Sources of History?

The term sources in reference to history covers a body of materials vast in range and diversified in character. Written records, oral records, remains of prehistoric villages, towns, ancient inscripations on the sides of rocks; in short, any bit of testimony, any object that can throw light on the human story. Finds place in the category “historical sources.” One may define the term as “human remains and such products of man’s activity as either were meant by their authors to communicate knowledge of historical facts, or by their nature are calculated to do so.”

Let us take two examples from Ancient Indian history to elucidate the nature of historical sources. A standard version of ‘Arthashastra’ of Kautilya and Buddhist Stapa at Sanchi. Arthashastra helps us to recreate an image of mauryan empire, the organization of Government, the economy and social and cultural information. The Sanchi great stupa presents a different aspects of historical facts.

A suggestive way to look at historical sources is to regard them as “traces” left behind by past events. The events of history are no longer realities, though they once were. All that survives of them is the impression they made on observes, which impression the observes themselves, or other persons, relying directly or indirectly on the reports of observes, fixed in writing or in the some other medium or record. The recorded impressions are therefore, the only traces which past events have left in their wake. The historian must work recorded impressions and through them on the events. Heuristics is therefore in the nature or mining process, having for its object to bring the raw material of history to light. From this point view Niebuhr was led to describe it as a “working under- ground”.

Nature of historical sources in relation to their utility in the construction of the past as it was. In this respect we have to consider the time scheme. Such as ancient, medieval and modern resources.

Historical knowledge is an indirect knowledge. It is derived by inference from the facts as revealed through the records of the past ages. These records are in different forms such as documents and artifacts.

The source material is the essential part of history writing. There are various types of the historical sources. They can be categorized according to their nature. The sources play important role in the history writings. Hence the historian carry search for it at different places like archives, museums and institutions. A historian tries to construct a systematic account of the past event with the help of historical sources. They can be categorized into following ways in a broader form.

  1. Archaeological sources
  2. Literary sources
  3. Oral tradition
  4. Digital sources

These sources can also be classified into two types –

a) Primary Sources

Gottschalk defines a primary data source as “the testimony of any eye writers by any other of the senses.” In other words primary sources are tangible materials that provide a description of an historical event and were produced shortly after the event happened. They have a direct physical relationship to the event being studied examples of primary sources include new paper report, letters, public document, court decisions, personal diaries, autobiographies, artifacts and eye witnesses’ verbal accounts. The primary sources of data can be divided into two broad categories as follows.

1) The remains or relics of given historical period. These could include photographs, corves skeletons, fossils tools, weapons, utensils furniture and buildings. Though these were not originally meant for transmitting information to future generations. They would prove very useful sources in providing reliable and sound evidence about the past. These relics provide non-verbal information.

2) Those objects that have a direct physical relationship with the events being reconstructed. This includes documents such as laws, files, letters, manuscripts, government resolutions, characters, memoranda, wills, newspapers, magazines, journals, files, government or other official publications, maps, charts, books, catalogues, research reports, record of minutes of meetings recording inscription, transcriptions and so on.

b) Secondary Sources

A secondary source is one in which the eyewitness or the participant i.e. the person describing the event was not actually present but who obtained the descriptions or narrations from another person or source. This another person may or may not be a primary source. Secondary sources, thus, do not have a direct physical relationship with the event being studies. They include data which are not original example of secondary sources include text books, biographies, encyclopedias, reference books, replicas of out objects and paintings and so on. It is possible that secondary sources contain errors due to passing of information from one source to another. These errors could get multiplied when the information passes through many sources there by resulting in an error of great magnitude in the final data. Thus, wherever possible, the researcher should try to use primary sources of data. However, that does not reduce the value of secondary sources.

Primary sources can be divided into literary and archaeological sources.

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