History is like science in the sense that it is very difficult to get to the ultimate, absolute, bottom-of, truth about something. Even personal history is layered in emotion and the fallibility of memory. I began to really understand this when I was researching leprosy in medieval times for Martin of Gfenn.
Most people still have the image of hordes of lepers wandering around Europe ringing their bell or rattling their rattle rasping out “Unclean!” as they begged for food. Probably there were a few lepers out there doing this, but in reality there were never many lepers in Europe. Most of them were crusaders returning from the Holy Land where leprosy was endemic. So where did people get this idea? Sir Walter Scott AND the fact that there are a LOT of medieval buildings that were built as leper hospitals scattered across the countryside. I went into this in depth in my gripping four part series on the Medieval Leper which, to my amazement has barely been read by anybody. Go figure! 🙂
The other thing about history is the further back one looks, the less one sees. At the museum in Del Norte, to which I’m somewhat attached, the director — Louise — is always happy to have “provenance,” that is real honest to god factual information about a thing. But even ancient history is getting some of that thanks to science, Carbon 14 dating and even more exciting, DNA. Almost every day I learn something new about something old that paleo anthropologists have discovered from a couple of molars found buried in a cave in an obscure part of the world. And then, there’s this amazing thing, the reconstruction of heads based on DNA and skeletal fragments.
The first time I saw this amazing process realized was when I went to the San Diego Museum of Man to see Ötzi, the Iceman. I fell in love with Ötzi the moment he was discovered and was really happy to discover that my DNA Haplogroup is the same as his. It doesn’t matter AT ALL other than adding to the mythology that short mountain dwelling people with arthritis are an ancient band. Ötzi was comparably easy to reconstruct into a 3-D image of himself because he was frozen in a glacier and had most of his parts and his last meal intact, even after 5300 years. His entire being told a library of stories — with provenance.