Fact, fiction or something in between? The challenges of using historical sources

Fact, fiction or something in between? The challenges of using historical sources

Fact, fiction or something in between? The challenges of using historical sources

At the recent Ancient History Teachers Conference, a cast of international experts shared stunning new findings and the importance of a critical eye when using historical sources.

The Department of Ancient History prides itself on its engagement with school teachers and has been running annual teachers’ conferences since 1974. This year two huge events for teachers of Ancient History and Studies of Religion were held over successive days.

“One thing we have learned,” says Dr Gil Davis, co-convenor of both conferences, “is that teachers want new information to give their students the edge.” With this in mind, last month he and Associate Professor Lea Beness assembled a stellar team of experts including three international guest speakers for an Ancient History conference themed around ‘Using sources – old and new’, held at The Art Gallery of NSW.

All HSC ancient history students must study Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the audience of 170 teachers was enthralled by talks from Professor Alison Cooley from Warwick in the UK, and Macquarie’s Professor Ray Laurence, on recent discoveries – tombs and inscriptions – which shed light on how the Pompeiians lived their lives. They heard about gladiatorial shows, banquets, riots, and distributions of cash and grain together with threat of censure by public authorities desperate to keep the population in check. Even our modern concept of ‘retail therapy’ has its beginnings in Pompeii.

The road to retail: Via Stabia, a street in Pompeii lined with evidence of permanent shopfronts.

Professor Anton Powell visiting from Wales impressed upon the audience the importance of being critical of sources and understanding them the way an historical novelist does – purged of hindsight. This means asking what the person would have been thinking when they made their decision, and extends even to decisions like the atomic attacks on Japan in WW2 where there was a realistic fear that the alternative would be worse. This can be forgotten by historians past and present, who often reconstruct motives according to what eventuated.

For instance, how likely was it that Cleopatra committed suicide by asp? The story emanated from Augustus who was her gaoler. He desperately needed to do away with his rival and her son, the legitimate heir of Caesar. He was in control of the story.

The most popular elective is Sparta, and the teachers were treated to a masterclass by Anton who demonstrated that the Spartans were talented liars and much of Greek history is corrupted by wishful thinking. How else could the defeat of the leading Spartan warriors at the impregnable pass of Thermopylae in only three days be turned into a propaganda victory?

He also pointed out that according to Greek poet Hesiod, Discretion and Lies were both daughters of Untruth. We should be suspicious whenever a story starts by saying: “The Spartans have always done this…” Fortunately, archaeology is now dispelling many such stories.

The next day, Gil co-convened the Studies of Religion conference with the NSW Board of Jewish Education. About 80 teachers came to hear a comprehensive set of talks on Judaism in the HSC syllabus given by a range of specialists, including Macquarie PhD candidate Natalie Mylonas who discussed ‘Land and Affect in the Bible’. Gil and Dr Eve Guerry spoke about the opportunities Macquarie offers to teachers and their students.

In total, 250 teachers left with deepened knowledge and engagement with Macquarie, and the Department has received extremely positive feedback.

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