Sources of History

The original and traditional source of historical knowledge is the written text. However, the concept of what a historical source is has undergone transformation and redefinition over the centuries. This has happened as new mediums of communication, record keeping, and non-textual data in the form of material remains have emerged. New disciplines have also developed that continually challenge historians to include these new sources in their analysis and explanation of the past.

The primary source of history is documents, or texts in various forms. Originally historians, limited to ancient manuscripts, used a wide number of sources to achieve an understanding of the past. These sources of history came from epic poetry, myths, fables, inscriptions left on buildings or objects, deeds of farms or land, proclamations, ancient letters, and any other form of writing. Before the 20th century, historians, without the benefit of archaeology, relied on evaluating the language used, the number of copies of a text and if there was agreement, and theories about transmission of those texts to develop a means to evaluate whether a source was reliable or unreliable. 

JERWAN, IRAQ: Cuneiform writing on the stones of the aqueduct at Jerwan in Iraqi Kurdistan. Constructed between 703 and 690 BC, by Sanherib (Sennecherib) of Assyria, the Jerwan Aqueduct (he oldest intact aqueduct in the world) delivered water in the Atrush Canal from the Khenis (Gomel) Gorge to the Khosr River above Nineveh. The canal used advanced techniques including sluice gates and the Jerwan aqueduct - a 275 m/900 ft limestone bridge, 9 m/30 ft high and 15 m/30 ft wide. Photo by Sebastian Meyer +964 750 792 2163
Cuneiform writing on the Jerwan Aqueduct (703-690 BCE). King Sennacherib I of Assyria made sure that, thousands of years later, people would know that it was he who ordered the construction of this feat of Assyrian engineering. Photo © Sebastian Meyer.