How to Use, Understand and Critically Assess Source Material: A Tutoring Case Study

Updated: May 18



As students of history-based subjects will well know, the written historical record is patchy at best. To combat this, historians depend upon a variety of sources, rather than just the official written accounts, to create a fuller understanding of the world at that time through comparison with art, music, literature, fashion, oral tradition and material culture. Although some eras are still more prolific with these types of sources, any source can still be helpful when inferring new theories or corroborating ideas presented within the few written sources that historians may have. Unfortunately, multiple influences that were popularised and have since dissipated within written and cultural beliefs have affected the way that historical events were recorded, affecting how source objects have been categorised over the years. When reviewing these objects, historians have assessed the discussion or presentation of objects in alternative sources to identify and rectify areas which we would view as invalid, in light of our present knowledge. Consequently, history is continuously rewritten as we identify these innocent mistakes; readjusted to allow new sources to be injected into the historical record.


For historians, a key piece of this practise is understanding and critically engaging with these sources; a process which I hope to illustrate with a case study presented within the form of a lesson. This section will take some imagination on the part of the reader, if they wish to partake in this adventure into the mind and process of the historian seeking to unravel the mystery of an unknown object. Hopefully, by employing this exercise within a tutoring session, the student will come to better understand the methodology of history and why critically engaging with sources is an important skill to cultivate as a historian. For this exercise, I would like you to imagine that you are a blank slate of historical and scientific knowledge - no evolution, no Big Bang, no knowledge of dinosaurs. Now, let’s start with the lesson set up.


“In 1705, digging along the bank of the Hudson River in Claverack, New York State, you discover a large, odd-looking stone that looks like a gigantic molar tooth, weighing about 2.2lb (5.5kg). You are flummoxed by this object, and show it around to your friends, family and intellectual high-society men - clerics, clergymen, university professors - to see if any of them know what it could be. These individuals, also largely flummoxed the object, label it as part of the American incognitum (Latin for unknown).”


Alright, so we have the set up for this lesson - you have been presented with an object and no written information or theories from intellectuals, aside from the idea that it is labelled as part of an incognitum. There are a few things that we, as historians, can do at this point. Firstly, we can stick with this theory that it is from something unknown, that is all we will ever know and place the large odd-looking rock on a shelf and forget about it for decades or even centuries. Not a very good historical attitude, but it has happened with various artifacts as people didn’t realise how important the artifact was at the time. Secondly, we can create our own theory for the object. This is helpful for most historians as it allows for debates with other professionals who may also have theories of their own and to give historians a starting point to research from, to prove or disprove their theory. Thirdly, we can continue to reach out to other individuals and ask for their opinion to allow them to research the object for us. I would say that for the current age, most historians would follow the second option and continue to research an interesting object to understand it. So, now, I want you to write down what you think this object could be and what it could be from. We shall see how right you are at the end of the lesson. Written it? Wonderful, let’s continue with some more information for the case study.


“After this object is named, shown and talked about at intellectual society events, interested individuals within America and Europe begin theorising and investigating this object and excavating for more. Many clergymen become interested in this object, identifying it as what they believe to be proof of giants that roamed the Earth that are described within the Old Testament, who were extinguished during the ‘Great Deluge’ (a massive flood) that covered the planet in water, creating the seas that we see today, and creating the planet ready for us as God’s most important creation to roam the Earth. These giants, as theorised by Cotton Mathers, a Puritan clergyman (hard-lined Protestants that didn’t believe in Christmas, celebrations, sports, drinking or gambling), were believed to be 70ft (21.3m) tall giants based on further evidence of a 17ft (5m) long thigh bone found in the same area as the giant’s tooth. This general theory is popular among many intellectual societies- that the Great Deluge and its extinction caused the possible extinction of other species - and is discussed within popular culture, by the American Revolutionary Puritan poet and minister Edward Taylor, praising the giant’s tooth as one of the New World’s greatest wonders. Taylor also recognised that these giant’s could be the same giants discussed within the Native American mythology of the New England tribes. Although many clergyman previously had correlated these giants to the Devil from Christianity, due to racial discrimination towards Native Americans by colonists in this period, Taylor presents that they may be the same giants, although Mathers wholeheartedly disagrees.”


We have our first theories on these objects within the written text. Exciting, right? We have a popularly-believed theory: the tooth came from a 70ft tall giant that roamed the planet before a great flood made them extinct, ready for the planet that God created to be inhabited by us. Let’s identify how Mathers reached this theory. Mathers inspects the object, deems it to be a human-like tooth - a molar to be exact - inferring that it must come from a creature. Next, Mathers consults the written sources of the Bible, which he is well-versed in and played an immense part in the framing of science, history and culture at the time, to determine what kind of creatures existed, large enough to have a mouth with 2lb teeth in it. From this reading, Mathers theorizes that this tooth might belong to giants that are discussed within the Bible. Mathers also corroborates this idea with further material evidence, when the suspected thigh bone is found in the same river bank. Taylors continues the historical analysis, although Mathers may disagree with his source, by comparing these biblical giants to Native American giants. This makes sense from a source methodology perspective, as Taylor has explored the mythological oral tradition of the Native Americans and found a similarity with physical objects, which could explain their origin and help to corroborate Mathers written tradition with the oral tradition of the native people from the area. Both of them create a valid theory that could be proven to be true. Now, let's analyse the final piece of evidence.


“In 1805, Charles Wilson Peale and his son, Rembrandt, excavated the full skeleton of an elephant-like creature - initially referred to as a mammoth, now known as a mastodon - in Montgomery, New York State. The skeleton includes the full jaw of the creature, which features several teeth that weigh and look similar to Mathers’ giant’s tooth. This skeleton is the first full skeleton of a prehistoric creature to be excavated anywhere in the world, and becomes widely popular within America and Europe.”


Well, that’s all the evidence I have time for (there is much more to this story if you want to research it, like a good historian). We have our answer, a mastodon, but did you guess correctly? Without googling it? If you did, congratulations; if you didn’t, that’s ok, it took a century for people to think that 70ft giants weren’t running around the planet before us.


The important parts I want you to take from this case study are as follows:


  • Context is imperative to the study and review of history. Mathers and Taylors’ context influenced the way they developed their theories, the sources they consulted and what theory was believable based on these sources.

  • Good historical methodology does not always create an accurate historical theory. Mathers and Taylor consulted other sources to understand their original object, but still created a theory that has been proven wrong with research from the future..

  • History is not always set in stone. History is continuously evolving as new theories within multiple fields continue to find new ways to date and review objects, understand sources and discover new ones for the historical record, like the rest of the mastodon skeleton.

  • Lastly, I hope you had fun and found a new passion for history or at least learnt something new today about the mastodon, the ‘Great Deluge’ or the giants that roamed the planet.



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