I often think of what types of sources are used to make the stories about the past on various dodgy websites. Since I’ve been working for the Hamilton Trust I have become more aware of how many websites and books offer information and resources for teachers that don’t quote where they got their information from (even the BBC). Of course, many primary school teachers will not have studied history past the age of 14 themselves, so will not know the information, let alone have the historical skills to find out.
Not only do teachers often not know and don’t have time to find out where the information comes from, how can children (and I quote from the national curriculum) “understand how our knowledge of the past is constructed from a range of sources” if the teachers have no idea? Critical thinking skills get such high billing in the science or English curriculum, they should be there in the history curriculum too.
I tend to write blocks of work on the evidence behind the various topics I write about e.g. the Shang Dynasty of China, Ancient Greece or, currently, Benin in West Africa from AD 900-1300. I built in a discussion about sources for prehistory in the workshop I developed for the Pitt Rivers Museum (particularly as it is an anthropology museum and I wanted to show that ethnographic parallels are a frequently used, if sometimes contested, alternative source of evidence to interpret archaeological sites and artefacts). When I go out to schools to talk about Anglo-Saxons I get kids to act out the invasion according to Bede, and then pick holes in the evidence as provided by archaeology.
I have found writing about the sources of evidence for Benin’s pre-colonial history quite a challenge. Websites and books merely told the stories of various Ogisos and Obas, and the possible invasions from Ile-Ife that either they got from another website or book without references, or they assumed you knew what the main sources were.
Finally, I found several almost primary sources. Firstly, those stories about the Ogisos and Obas come from the oral histories that were told for centuries in Benin (now in south-west Nigeria, not the site of the current Republic of Benin) and written down and published in 1933 by Jacob Egharevba. If you have an account with Questia, you can read it online. But how far can we trust the oral histories that may have been reworked several times?
Secondly, there are the accounts by Europeans about what Benin was like after the period in question. There’s Olfert Dapper who published in 1668 (and hadn’t visited so based all his information on reports from others), Olaudah Equiano claimed to have grown up in Benin before being sold into slavery at the age of 11, but he may have been born in the Americas, and Sir Richard Burton wrote about the kingdom and other areas of West Africa during a journey in 1862. But what can the writers of these later centuries tell us of the pre-European period? Surely the mere contact with Europeans changed the society hugely, plus it’s written by outsiders who have particular agendas.
Thirdly, there’s archaeology. Not a lot of archaeology has been done in the kingdom of Benin but there is one article I found in the The Journal of African History by Graham Connagh dating back to the 1960s where he dug on the site of the former Oba’s palace and some of the levels dated back to the 13th century AD (you can find it on JSTOR). But I didn’t find any other articles on the archaeology of the kingdom of Benin. Do please point me their way if you know of any!
Having taken the teachers and children through these various sources of evidence, I am challenging them to recreate Benin City using the various sources. Here’s my recreation of part of the Oba’s palace based on one of the Benin bronze plaques now in the British Museum below.
Children will have to decide whether to focus on pictorial evidence, written descriptions or archaeological discoveries, especially where they contradict each other. It’ll be interesting to see whether any of them think about focusing on one particular time in the Kingdom of Benin’s history. The evidence I have provided for this task ranges from the 12th to the 19th centuries AD. Did the city stay the same during this period? I hope there’ll be plenty of discussion (perhaps even arguments) about the reliability and validity of the evidence as classes build their models of Benin City.