The words revision and revisionism, when it comes to history, have a bad smell. They are lobbed as insults against people who propose new ways of understanding things that already have a conventional explanation. “We had it right the first time, stop monkeying with it” is the implied retort. Revision, however, is essential to the study of history. No matter how well we think we understand something, our grasp of history is always partial and conditional. New evidence, new ideas, and new questions applied to the known sources frequently yield new results and we often discover that our conventional explanations, while not wrong, are incomplete. And sometimes they are just wrong.
Here’s an example. As the European study of ancient Egyptian history developed in the 1800s, European colonialism was also spreading across Africa. For scholars who supported the imperialist agenda, or at least accepted its intellectual framework (and there were those who didn’t, but they were a minority), ancient Egypt presented a problem. Imperialist thinking declared that Africans were incapable of reaching a high level of culture without the help of superior white men, and therefore European colonization of Africa was not just a profitable venture but a moral imperative. Yet there could be no denying that ancient Egypt had been a high culture. How could both things be true?
Various answers to this problem were proposed, but as the nineteenth century wore on and so-called “racial science” came into vogue, the principles of race were applied to the Egypt question. Since Africans were racially incapable of creating a high culture, race-based scholarship claimed, the civilization of ancient Egypt must have been imported from somewhere else.
In the early years of the twentieth century, archaeology offered an explanation for the origins of Egyptian civilization that fit the demands of European imperialism and racial theorizing. Sir William Flinders Petrie, an Egyptologist and one of the early proponents of scientific archaeology, claimed that skeletons from very early Egyptian burials were racially distinct from the typical Egyptian population. He argued that these skeletons were the evidence of a group of Mesopotamian elites who conquered Egypt and established the first organized kingdom in the Nile valley, bringing their advanced culture with them, including architecture, writing, religious systems, and monarchy. The descendants of these Mesopotamian invaders, Flinders Petrie believed, remained racially distinct from native Egyptians as a ruling class and founded the dynasties of pharaohs who built the pyramids and continued to rule Egypt until Alexander the Great, a superior European man, came along to replace them.
This interpretation of ancient Egyptian history came to be known as the “dynastic race” theory, since it posited that the pharaonic dynasties were of a different race than the people over whom they ruled. It was perfectly suited to the demands of the time. First, it discounted the idea that an African people might have created a high culture on their own. Ancient Egyptian culture was redefined as a foreign culture which had been imported by conquerors and then imitated by the native people. No need to allow that Africans might be capable of creativity or intellectual ability. Second, it provided a historical justification for European imperialism in Africa. This was how things were supposed to work. Advanced outsiders carved out a territory in Africa and set themselves up as a ruling class, then the poor masses over whom they ruled gratefully received civilization from them.
Dynastic race theory remained part of mainstream historical thinking until the 1960s when several factors combined to overturn it. First, the concept of race as a biological reality came into question. We now understand race to be a social and historical construct. In the modern study of history, race is a question, not an answer.
Second, better methods of physical anthropology, and especially recent advances in DNA research, have given us a much more nuanced understanding of both modern and ancient populations. The Nile valley is one of the major routes of travel connecting sub-Saharan Africa with the Mediterranean and Eurasia. People have been moving along it for thousands of years. The population of Egypt, both today and in antiquity, cannot be defined in simple racial terms but is a complex melting pot of African, Mediterranean, European, and southwest Asian genetic lineages. The skeletons excavated by Flinders Petrie and the later pharaohs of Egypt were part of that complex population, not separate from it.
Third, the end of European colonialism in Africa and the rise of post-colonial studies has shattered many of the assumptions about the origins and merits of different civilizations that shaped dynastic race theory.
We now know that the pharaohs of ancient Egypt were from the same population as the people over whom they ruled, that Egyptian civilization was an essentially indigenous creation (although people of every culture adopt ideas from their neighbors and trade partners), and that ancient Egypt was just one of many complex, advanced civilizations created in Africa by Africans.
This is one layer of revision: reexamining old ideas in the light of new evidence, new methodologies, and different perspectives. Not all revisions are as dramatic as the rejection of dynastic race theory. Often we find that old ideas just need to be tweaked and improved. Scholarship builds on itself as we make good ideas better fill in the blank spaces between older discoveries.
There is a second layer of revision that is trickier, but just as important, and that is to reexamine the ideas that were built on older ideas that we have rejected or revised. Dynastic race theory claimed that Egyptian culture was essentially imported Mesopotamian culture, so generations of scholarly work were devoted to tracing elements of Egyptian culture to Mesopotamian origins. Until very recently, decades after dynastic race theory had been discarded, conventional histories of Egypt continued to trace Egyptian writing, government, architecture, and gods to Mesopotamia.
The racism inherent in dynastic race theory is plain, even to a non-specialist. The problems with the idea that, say, Egyptian hieroglyphs were inspired by Mesopotamian cuneiform writing are much less obvious. After all, Phoenician letters inspired the Greek alphabet, which in turn inspired Etruscan and Roman writing, which themselves inspired runic characters. Egypt and Mesopotamia were in contact from an early period and did exchange trade goods and ideas. If you don’t know where the idea that cuneiform inspired hieroglyphics came from, you have no reason to suspect it might be wrong. This is part of the essential work of revision: not just to winnow out the bad ideas, but also the ideas built on those ideas that are not obviously bad in themselves.
Thoughts for writers
Revision is an essential part of the study of history. We correct the mistakes of the past and build on the ideas that are solid. Even the most basic of questions can be reexamined in the light of new evidence and new perspectives.
This is why, when doing your research, you should favor more recent sources. As a practical rule of thumb, treat anything written before 1900 as highly suspect. Much historical work was done by amateurs with peculiar ideas. Don’t rely on anything you read in such early sources unless you can verify it in more recent work.
The early twentieth century saw an increasing professionalization of historians, so anything written between 1900 and 1970 should be considered more reliable, but it is still better to check any conclusions against more recent scholarship.
In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a revolution in historical scholarship as historians began to take a much more critical approach to their primary sources. Scholarship written after 1970 tends to be far more reliable than earlier work.
Of course, there are no absolutes. Some works of early scholarship are still fundamental today, and modern research gets things wrong, too. Critical reading and broad research is always advised. Don’t take the first answer you get as necessarily right.
The study of history works by correcting its mistakes, asking new questions and revisiting the old questions from new points of view. It can be a messy process, but it is essential to understanding the past.
Image: Ankh-auf-Mut worshiping Osiris via Wikimedia (currently Worcester Art Museum; third intermediate period; paint on wood)
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.