Saturday, March 14, 2009

The Weekend Muse: Why Authentic; How Real?

Understanding, re-creating, and interpreting our past is not an easy endeavor as anyone who has a serious investment of time and energy can testify. In a sense we are , as the Coalition of Historical Trekkers puts it, experimental archaeologists, or more accurately perhaps, experimental anthropologists. The CoHT “purpose”, however, accurately describes what we seek as historians investigating our past:

“to establish facts about a historical people or time period . . . Our research is accompanied by experimentation in historical situations, using the foods, tools, clothing, weapons, and methods authentic to those used by the early frontier people here in America. Believing that the best way to preserve history is to share it, we communicate this research and the results of our experimentation with others through educational events and publications . . .

Arguments, perennial and continuing, rage over whether one is too concerned over authenticity or not concerned enough. Are the material goods present in one’s gear or another’s camp correct to the period in time and the place they seek to represent? Does compliance with “period correct” add to or detract from the experience of the participant? Does such behavior, the “stitch Nazi” or lackadaisical “rendezoo-er”, matter or even limit participation? Should one seek out what was “common” or standard for people of a given time, or should one be allowed “individual freedom” to stretch the boundaries of what might be possible?

All these questions are a distraction from the purpose of re-creation and understanding, and really beside the point.

We should take seriously, I think, our role as experimental anthropologists. Yes, for some this is just a hobby and for others a livelihood. But neither should obscure the goal of wanting to understand “how did they live?” One can have fun, be severely serious, or anywhere in between and still pursue the ideal of presenting an authentic as possible picture of our past.

Why else spend so much time and money if not to be as authentic to your study as possible. And, the whole reason for doing this is not some dry academic pursuit that will be written up, shelved, and possibly read by a future audience. We seek to understand and live this past so we can present it as a living gift to this and future generations.

By so doing, we understand not only our ancestors, we understand ourselves. For example, understanding the 18th century political and financial system of Great Britain and North America actually provides a context to making sense of our present situation, as difficult as that might seem. The system of finance and credit, the social stratification, the underlying social and political unrest the erupted in the 1790s (and again in the mid-19th century and throughout the 20th century) are much more comprehensible through this lens.

Can we perfectly reproduce the past? Of course not. Try as we might, using as close to period materials as we have at our disposal, we can never “go back”. If nothing else, our brains have hundreds of years of accumulated knowledge recorded. We also better understand a number of the hidden dangers of their lifestyle or life situations. Dangers we don’t need to re-create, but of which we nevertheless should be aware and account for.

How real, then, can we be? We can research, we can debate, we can “field test” our chosen era, its people, its material culture. And then we can attempt seriously to live in a manner, when we enter our historical mode, that is authentic to our predecessors and the life they lived.

To do less would be to show a lack of respect for and a recognition of who they were and the struggles that confronted them as they made their way through life.

Coming this week: Spilling ink, part 1


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