Frederick G. Naerebout is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Ancient History of Leiden University. He is the author of Attractive Performances: Ancient Greek Dance; three preliminary studies (1997). Henk W. Singor was until his retirement in 2012 Associate Professor of Ancient History the Department of Ancient History at Leiden University.
Sources and Chronology
The diversity of sources
Without sources, there is no history. The human memory cannot be trusted, and it has a limited range. To memorize the past, humanity is in need of an external memory. This external memory is provided by the sources. Almost everything can function as a source, whether it is intended as such or not. Thus, sources consist of not only writings, but of all relics of human behavior, even if this behavior was not intended to produce a source of some kind. We should even include phenomena that have occurred independent of human interference, such as a layer of soil deposited by flooding water; all can be used to inform us about the circumstances of life at some moment of time. To come to grips with this extremely diverse material, we had best categorize the sources. The most common classification is that of written and unwritten sources.
Written sources are the results of the application of a human script. This category can be subdivided into primary sources, that is, sources that are the immediate result of past actions (documents), and secondary sources, that is, sources that have been mediated, have gone through some filter such as a historian's selection and arrangement (literary sources). The opposition between primary and secondary sources is not absolute but relative: whether a source is considered primary or secondary depends on the questions asked. For example, if one is interested in the social and economic dimensions of slavery in the ancient Greek world, plays in which slaves figure are a secondary source, as opposed to primary sources such as so-called manumission decrees, texts drawn up when a slave was granted his or her freedom. But if one is interested in how Athenians of the 5th century or the 4th century imagined slaves or slavery, those same plays, written and watched by contemporary Athenians, have turned into primary sources. And this would certainly be the case if one chooses not Athenian slavery but Athenian drama as the object of one's research.
The ancient world has left us a wide range of written sources. First, we have countless inscriptions, also called epigraphic sources: all texts cut into a carrier of some sort, usually stone, ceramics, or metal. Many texts written with ink or paint on hard surfaces or laid out in mosaic are also classified as epigraphic material, although these are strictly speaking not inscriptions. Inscriptions have been produced by every society that was able to write. They range from the codification of laws to shopping lists, from epitaphs to obscene graffiti. Inscriptions can be archival texts, for example, many of the inscribed clay tablets of the ancient Near East; or texts put up in some public space, for example, many of the hieroglyphic texts of ancient Egypt; or texts put to some more specific use, for example, the inscriptions on so-called oracle bones used in large quantities in ancient China. The Greek and subsequently the Roman culture displayed a most remarkable propensity to make public texts of many different kinds by having these inscribed and put up for all to see. Thus, for the study of classical Greece, the Hellenistic world, and the Roman Empire, epigraphy is a very important source indeed: we have thousands upon thousands of texts, and new ones are found all the time.
Written sources other than inscriptions from the ancient world are rare: papyrus, parchment, paper, and other perishable materials, as bamboo or silk, have only seldom been preserved. In the Mediterranean world, papyrus was the most common kind of writing material, as was paper in China from the 2nd century AD . Alas, most texts written down on these carriers have been lost, the only exception being Egypt, where papyri have been preserved in large numbers owing to the desert conditions prevailing in most of th