Historiography is the study of the way history is written—the methods used by historians—which involves extensive research, determining the authenticity of sources of information, the selection and interpretation of particular details from those sources, and finally writing an account of history that stands the test of critical examination. All human cultures tell stories about the past, which were memorized and passed down for generations through narration, for thousands of years, long before writing was invented. The Oxford History of Historical Writing is an encyclopedia of historiography, providing examples of how human history has been recorded by cultures worldwide.
The word historiography itself is not well known, so here are just a few examples to illustrate some of the ways history is written. One of the oldest historical writings comes from ancient China. The Spring and Autumn Annals is the official history of the ancient State of Lu from 722 to 481 BCE (BC) and is one of the earliest (annalistic) texts in the world that presents a logical, narrative history with events arranged chronologically, year by year. The earliest known historical works in Europe were The Histories, written by the Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (484–425 BCE). Herodotus was the first to distinguish reliable from unreliable sources for writing history, and conducted research by personally travelling extensively rather than relying on hearsay or second-hand information. Julius Caesar’s (100–44 BCE) de Bello Gallico is an ancient example of first-hand reporting of war by the participating general. The Roman historian Livy (59 BCE–17 CE) records the rise of the Roman Empire and even speculated about what would have happened if Alexander the Great had attacked Rome, which represents the first known instance of alternate history.
However, we take written history so much for granted that we rarely think about how history is “revealed” and how it is documented. For instance, most people are unaware how the invention of movable type in 11th century China and the printing press in 15th century Europe not only revolutionized the recording of history, but also created the first “information superhighway.” This article presents technologies used to discover and record history in the modern era—from audio technology that recorded the long-neglected voices of slavery to genetic science that finally resolved troublesome historical controversies.
Sound Recording: The Democratization of Historiography
Oral history is a method of revealing historical information about individuals, families, important events, or everyday life by interviewing and recording the voices of eyewitnesses. These interviews are conducted with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions need to be preserved as an aural record for future generations. An oral history interview consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording the questions and answers in audio or video format. Recordings of the interview are transcribed and then placed in a library or archive.
Oral history strives to obtain information from different perspectives especially those that cannot be found in written sources. Anthropologists started collecting recordings of Native American folklore and language on phonograph cylinders in the late 19th century. In the 1930s, the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sent out interviewers to collect accounts from surviving witnesses of the Civil War, slavery, and other major historical events. Although anyone who could remember slavery would by then have been well over 70 years old, the subsequently published interviews, Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936 to 1938, nevertheless preserved invaluable family stories as well as personal memories.
Invented in 1898 by Danish engineer, Valdemar Poulsen, wire recording was the first magnetic recording technology, in which a voice recording is made on a thin steel wire. During the Nuremberg trials (1945–1946) simultaneous wire recordings were made for English, German and other languages spoken during proceedings. In 1946, David Boder, a professor of psychology at Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, traveled to Europe to interview refugees, most of them Holocaust survivors. Using an early wire recorder, Boder recorded the first Holocaust testimonials. Wire recording was most popular in the 1940s and 1950s and was replaced by magnetic tape recording in the 1950s. The accessibility of tape recorders in the 1960s and 1970s led to oral history documentation of the movements and protests of the era. With the dramatic drop in the cost of consumer video cameras during the 1980s, it became simpler and financially feasible to film interviewees for oral histories. Thanks to videotaping, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has an extensive archive of over 70,000 oral history interviews. With digital recording technology, equipment can be easily transported anywhere for recording of both current events as well as conducting oral history interviews.
Genetic Testing: Settling Controversies in Historiography
Some controversial issues in the past have been stubbornly unsolvable, such that truth itself was unattainable and historiography (the writing of history) suffered immensely. Two such controversies are the debate over whether President Thomas Jefferson fathered children with his slave Sally Hemings and the claim of Anna Anderson to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, the daughter of Tsar Nicolas II of Russia. Only DNA testing in the late 1990s and 2000s was finally able to resolve both of these controversies. Accurate, unambiguous identification of ancient or historical biological specimens can potentially be achieved by DNA analysis.
President Thomas Jefferson: One of the most famous cases of DNA analysis is the Jefferson-Hemings controversy. Did Jefferson have children with his slave Sally Hemmings? For more than 150 years, most historians, as well as prominent organizations dedicated to the preservation of Jefferson’s legacy and his home at Monticello, denied that he had a sexual relationship with his slave and snubbed the Hemings family. White historians claimed an alternative view that one of Jefferson’s nephews (Peter Carr) had been the father of Hemings’ children. New research in the 1950s further documented Jefferson’s paternity of Hemings’ children, and Jefferson historians began to lose control of their narrative. In 1979, Barbara Chase-Riboud published a well-received novel on Hemings, yet Jefferson historians succeeded in suppressing a planned CBS TV movie based on this novel. In 1997, Annette Gordon-Reed published a thorough analysis of the historiography on this controversy, deconstructing previous versions and detailing oversights and bias.
This controversy was finally resolved in 1998 with a Y-chromosome test: a male-specific part of DNA that passes down from father to son. The DNA of five descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s paternal uncle (Field Jefferson) and Carr’s descendants were analyzed and compared to the DNA of John Weeks Jefferson, the only living descendant of Sally Hemings’ son, Eston Hemings Jefferson. The DNA analysis confirmed that descendants of both families (Hemings and Jefferson) belonged to the same male line, but with no match to Carr.
In fact, Jefferson carried a very unusual Y chromosome type, which helped to strengthen the evidence in the historical paternity case. Jefferson’s Y chromosome belongs to a rare class called K2, which is found at its highest frequency in the Middle East and Eastern Africa. Could this mean that Jefferson had ancestry in the Middle East? A careful scientific study revealed a few K2 chromosomes are also found in France, Spain and England, including among Sephardic Jews, resulting in prominent news organizations erroneously suggesting Jefferson as the “first Jewish president”. However, individuals with the K2 chromosome are a diverse group, many of whom may, in fact, have been in western Europe for thousands of years (probably via ancient seafaring Phoenicians from Lebanon). On the other hand, the evidence for Jefferson’s British origins is interesting: Two out of 85 randomly recruited men in England, with the surname Jefferson, share exactly the same K2 chromosome as President Jefferson. These two men have ancestry in Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and knew of no historical connection to the USA, yet their Y chromosomes link them into Thomas Jefferson’s family tree, probably about 11 generations ago.
The Russian Royal Family: In July 1918, during the Russian Civil War (1917-1922), the entire Romanov royal family was murdered with the knowledge of Lenin. Under horrendous circumstances, family members were buried in two different locations, with two of Tsar Nicholas II’s five children (Prince Alexei and Anastasia) buried separately so as to confound identification of the human remains, if ever discovered. This war crime significantly contaminated Russian historiography, first because Soviet cover-ups and propaganda allowed plausible deniability and, secondly, the missing human remains encouraged false narratives that two Romanov children had survived, which in turn gave rise to imposters of Romanov family members. The most infamous imposter was Anna Anderson who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, the youngest daughter of Tsar Nicolas II.
In 1927, the Tsarina’s brother, Ernest Louis, Grand Duke of Hesse hired a private detective, Martin Knopf, who discovered that Anna Anderson’s real name was Franziska Schanzkowska and that she was actually Polish, had travelled to Berlin, and worked in a munitions factory during World War I. While at work, a grenade fell out of her hand and exploded. She had been injured in the head, suffered psychological repercussions, and declared insane in 1916. Throughout her life, Anna Anderson was intermittently hospitalized in sanatoria, nursing homes, and a psychiatric asylum. But, for decades, Knopf’s investigation was ignored, and Anna Anderson enjoyed public sympathy and financial support as the long-lost “Grand Duchess Anastasia” from members of related royal families and prominent individuals worldwide.
In July of 1991, nine bodies (the Tsar, his wife, three children, servants, and a physician) were exhumed from a mass grave at Ekaterinburg in the Ural region of Russia. In 2007, fragments of burned skeletons of the Tsar’s two remaining children were discovered in a second grave about 50 feet from the family’s main burial site. A study by Russian scientists of mitochondrial DNA (passed down through female ancestors) from these bodies provided unequivocal evidence that the remains of Nicholas II and his entire family, including all 5 children, had been identified. In 2007, the Russian government invited a team of scientists to conduct independent DNA testing of the remains. US researchers conducted highly specialized ancient DNA studies of remains from both graves at two independent laboratories: the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory (Rockville, Maryland) and the Institute for Legal Medicine (Innsbruck, Austria). Using 117-year-old archival blood specimens from Nicholas II (providing critical material to identify individuals and their kinship) and DNA samples from descendants of related European royal families, the identity of the remains of all Romanov family members was definitively re-confirmed.
As for Anna Anderson (Franziska Schanzkowska) who lived for many years in Germany and the U.S., a sample of her tissue, part of her intestine removed during an operation in 1979, had been stored at the Martha Jefferson Hospital in Virginia. Anderson’s mitochondrial DNA was extracted from the sample and compared with that of the Romanovs and their relatives. The study confirmed that it did not match the DNA of any royalty, confirming that Anderson was not related to the Romanovs. However, the sample matched DNA provided by Karl Maucher, a grandson of Schanzkowska’s sister, Gertrude (Schanzkowska) Ellerik, indicating that Karl Maucher and Anna Anderson were maternally related and that Anderson was Schanzkowska. Similarly, several strands of Anderson’s hair, found inside an envelope in a book that had belonged to Anderson’s American husband, Jack Manahan, were also tested. Mitochondrial DNA from the hair matched Anderson’s hospital sample and that of her relative Karl Maucher, but not the Romanov remains or their living royal relatives. The significance of DNA testing for historiography may be to finally end Soviet/Russian deflection away from state culpability in the murder of the Romanovs.