The Real Things
Fresh attention is now being directed to the stuff of history, to the three-dimensional objects that have survived from the old days of their uses. New books have touted “100 Objects” or “101” or even “1,000” as a way to understand a big event like World War I. Some have suggested that one can understand the whole sweep of history, or at least of military history, through interpretation of 100 objects or 100 weapons.
Never mind that these books are really suggesting that people can gain a fresh understanding of a period or event in history not through firsthand—tactile—experience with a period object but by looking at printed photographs of the selected objects. Nor is this a new idea. It has long been called “material culture,” and the premise is that one can gain some appreciation for human events, surroundings, and conditions through contact with the furniture of bygone lives.
In another sense, it is a very old idea indeed, as it reminds us that humans had a very long and evidently very lively history of development before anyone figured out how to keep written records of what happened. That knowledge is the cornerstone of other disciplines, including archaeology and paleoanthropology. Three-dimensional objects, great and small, can convey some useful information about past lives, whether the objects are structural—like the Great Pyramids or the ruins of Mesa Verde—or pocket-size, like the 2.52-million-year-old Oldowan stone tools from Africa or pre-Clovis projectile points found in the Americas.
The idea that old objects can tell us some important things about past life is also the founding impulse behind the world’s museums.
Some cautions are in order, however, when it comes to interpreting old things. There are obvious limits to what can be reliably inferred from simply eyeballing or handling a man-made object from a long-gone culture: Beware of hindsight, i.e., concluding that because a prehistoric object looks similar to a contemporary object, the two must have similar functions. Or concluding that a mysterious ancient object had “ritual or religious” significance—that popular fallback inference of baffled anthropology students. And beware of simple nostalgia—attributing major significance to an object that was a familiar sight in one’s own earlier days.
With those cautions in hand, though, it is undeniable that the real things of days gone by can yield valuable insights. Merely hefting a weapon, be it an 1860 cavalry saber or an ’03 Springfield, can enlarge one’s understanding of how such a weapon could be used.
Merely sitting in the cockpit of a Bf 109 (cramped and smelly) or crouching in an M-4 Sherman can be an illuminating lesson about claustrophobia and vulnerability. There is, in short, no substitute for the real things.
—Michael W. Robbins