Typically, art historical research can be separated into two categories: Primary and Secondary. It is important to understand the differences between the two types of resources.
A Primary Source is Defined As: Materials produced by people in the period and culture under consideration. These sources provide the evidence on which art historians rely in order to interpret the artwork and its significance in the time and place of its creation. Some primary sources are sculptures (including reliefs), architecture, funerary monuments, religious objects, vase paintings, and murals. These artworks and monuments can be for both public and private use. Other primary sources art historians rely on are written documents, such as letters; speeches; biographies; official decrees, religious texts, legal records, economic and trade records. In addition, art historians often examine primary sources such as archaeological remains.
A Secondary Source is Defined As: A resource that discusses a previously created artwork or monument or prior period/event from an academic or research or layperson perspective. The key here is that the resource is from some time after the event. An example of this would be a book about Augustus or an article in a journal publication discussing the significance of Akhenaten. A book will NOT typically be a primary source unless it is a compilation of letters or diary entries or documents.
Primary vs. Secondary Source: Often times determining whether something is primary or secondary may depend on the question that is being asked. For instance, if a researcher is researching the issues around Augustan ideology and reads a book on that topic published in the 2nd century CE, that book may be determined to be secondary but if the question is then about later Roman understanding of the Augustan period, then that same book can then become primary.
How to Read a Primary Source for History Classes (by UM-Dearborn History Professor Dr. Georgina Hickey and Dr. Pamela Pennock [adapted for art history courses by Prof. Diana Y. Ng])
1. Visually analyze the artwork/monument carefully and read the document carefully. You may be examining an artwork or a textual document composed by an ancient author.
2. Think about the following questions. Some of these questions apply better to some artworks/monuments and documents than others. Some questions you may not be able to answer because of incomplete information (an obstacle ancient art historians regularly face), but you may be able to speculate based on your historical knowledge. Choose the questions (it could be several) that you think can best be used to analyze and reveal the meanings of your primary source. In your notes compose brief responses to these questions.
3. Now step back and make a more overall assessment that includes the basics of the artwork/monument/document (including its iconography/style/tone), its strengths and weaknesses, the historical questions it might speak to, and some conclusions about the significance of the artwork/monument/document?
Be a detective; consider this artwork/monument/document a “clue.” Read between the lines. This is not meant to be a summary or simple description of the artwork/monument/document. Try to say something meaningful about the artwork/monument/document’s significance – how it adds to our understanding of a particular episode of ancient history.
Avoid presentism. You should not focus on making comparisons/contrasts to the present day. Your job is not to decide whether an artwork/monument/document is good or bad, or whether the commissioner or author was right or wrong; rather, you should be seeking to understand the document’s form, function, and impact.
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