Department of History College of Arts and Sciences
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Department of History

The University of Memphis
219 Mitchell Hall
3705 Alumni Drive
Memphis TN 38152-3450
Telephones: 901.678.2515, 901.678.4097
Fax: 901.678.2720
E-mail: history@memphis.edu
“What materials do historians work with?”


Most historians work with some form of written record or information derived from such a record (for example, population data in a statistical table will come from some record such as a census).

There are many kinds of documents, as the composite image seeks to demonstrate. They may be “written” on paper, vellum, clay, stone, or metal objects, to mention a few possibilities.

(Some historians work with materials that were not “written” by human hands, such as tree rings, sedimentary layers, or pieces of pottery — historians will borrow techniques from other disciplines, such as anthropology, when they are useful for working with non-verbal records.)

Documents

The documents in the composite image above are:

  • A fragment of an Egyptian papyrus
  • A Babylonian cuneiform clay tablet
  • A portion of a manuscript copy of Lao Tzu’s classic, Tao Te Ching
  • A portion of Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest surviving manuscripts of the Bible
  • A Spanish “milled dollar” or “piece of eight” (“eight bits”)
  • A portion of Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the Declaration of Independence
  • A sign carried in the Sanitation Workers’ strike in Memphis in 1968

Part of the fascination of “doing history” is in puzzling out the information that is contained in, or associated with, documents. The Spanish milled dollar is a good case in point. Why is it called a dollar? Isn’t that the monetary unit of the United States? Did the Spanish get the term from us, or did we get the term from them? What does the word “milled” mean? Why would a coin be milled anyway? What lies behind the expressions “piece of eight” and “eight bits”? Is this coin the source of the $ symbol for our dollar? There is a world (or, more accurately, two worlds) of symbolism in the objects that are on the face of the coin, and more lie on the side of the coin which is not shown. They tell us much about the pride of ownership which the Spanish Empire felt in possessing most of the “New World” and the claims to leadership among other world powers of the day which Spain asserted. We have only just begun to explore the full meaning of this coin. There is much more.

Wouldn’t you like to learn more about how historians manage to wrest information from these “silent” objects that humans have created? You can get a start with the following Web sites:

Then you can follow up by taking some courses in our department.

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Last Updated: 3/12/14