Sources of History – Concept, what they are, types and characteristics

We explain what the sources of history are, why they are essential and the characteristics of each type of historical source.

sources of history types
Historical sources are the underpinning of any historical speculation or deduction.

What are the sources of history?

Historical sources or sources of history are the set of objects, documents, testimonies and representations that provide the historian with relevant information and significant with respect to the events that occurred in the past. It is the raw material of the historian’s work, obtained in different ways and from different sources.

Historical sources are the support of any historical speculation or deduction, since without them information about the past would be lacking. Nevertheless, not all sources are equally reliable.

For this reason, the work of the historian goes through contrasting the sources and understanding their context of enunciation, trying to recreate as much as possible the moment of their origin. Even unreliable sources provide information on how an event from the past was represented at the time, or on the various interests involved in recording it.

For the same reason, the researcher in the field is expected to go to the greatest number and variety of sources possible, and also to proceed to assess and interpret their sources, in order to recompose a picture as close as possible to a historical truth. , taking into account the necessary production context of the sources it uses.

For example, it is not the same to deduce the events of a battle of antiquity from a mythological saga, from the testimony of a soldier of the victorious side, or from the version of events elaborated much later by historians of the defeated side.

Types of historical sources

sources of history
The primary sources are objects belonging to the period under investigation.

When classifying historical sources, a distinction is made between primary sources and secondary sources, as follows:

Primary sources. They are those that were produced practically simultaneously with the events that they record and make known, or that reach us without intermediaries, as they were made at the time. In turn, these sources can be classified into:

  • Written sources. All those that depend on written language, such as treatises, literary works, chronicles, documents, newspapers, inscriptions, etc. It is common to classify them into:
    • Documentaries, when they are issued by public institutions or entities, or are part of some type of bureaucracy or formal registry.
    • Periodic, when they are published or disseminated for informational, entertainment or other purposes, and are part of a continuous or daily publication.
    • Literary, when they are part of written works of art, such as poems, novels, epics, songs, etc.
    • Scientific, when they are the result of field investigations, direct observations or other tasks of scientific thought.
    • Personal, when it comes to personal writings made with the intention of recording someone’s experience, such as memories, diaries, correspondence, or they were generated as support for other activities, such as notes, drafts, etc.
  • Unwritten sources, such as monuments, paintings, utensils, ruins, oral testimonies, human remains, etc. They can be classified, in turn, into:
    • Artistic, when they consist of aesthetic representations, such as sculptures, paintings, engravings, etc.
    • Visuals, when they consist of photographs, sound recordings or audiovisual recordings, mostly from the 20th and 21st centuries.
    • Oral, when it comes to the account made by someone who witnessed the events of the past, or some legend or story transmitted orally from generation to generation.
    • Archaeological, when it comes to human remains from the past, such as everyday objects, funeral objects, tools, or even tools, kitchen utensils, vehicle parts, buildings, walkways, etc.

Secondary sources. Also called historiographic, they are those that are elaborated from the primary sources, and that therefore offer a mediated, partial or tangential vision of the original events. For example: history books, biographies, art treatises, archaeological documents, etc.