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HSC Ancient History: It’s Time for Sources!

By Isabella Larkin in HSC
13th of April 2021

Ahh, Ancient History. The only subject where you can be reasonably expected to learn hundreds of years’ worth of evidence in a single unit, or critique the most famous historians of our time.

Though I may be biased, if you’re reading this article now, you made a great choice in your subjects for the HSC! Through your Ancient History studies, you’ll be developing interpretative and argumentative skills, employing a critical eye over the plethora of sources the years present, and learning to connect the dots between people, events, actions and themes – and maybe learn something about our current world!

In a way, in your essay and short answer responses you’re going to be acting a bit like a historical lawyer, choosing the best evidence to support your judgment and discarding – or responding to – the pieces that just don’t line up. Like any good lawyer, this evidence is going to sit at the heart of your analyses, enabling you to make a well-rounded, fool-proof argument.

If you haven’t guessed the theme of this article let me spell it out a bit more clearly; sources are essential to any good response in Ancient History! However, approaching the issue of evidence can often introduce some challenges – what should I include? What do I trust? How much is too much, or not enough? To set you up for success over the next few terms, let’s break down some of these common concerns.

Concern 1: How often should I reference sources?

This is one of the most common questions any history teacher or tutor gets asked – Modern, Ancient or Extension – and the truth is, the answer isn’t as straightforward as it might seem. The sweet spot for the number of sources you should include in an Ancient History response is about one response per point you’ll be making. So in an essay, this might total four per paragraph, and in a short answer it will be roughly half the amount of marks awarded for a response.

But this is not a hard and fast rule! While going above and beyond is great (I probably had about sixteen unique and analysed sources in my Historical Period essay), you have to be careful your response doesn’t turn into a ‘shopping list’ of historians and pieces of evidence. Make sure you engage deeply with each source, clearly linking it to your individual point, your paragraph topic, your thesis and the broader essay question. Throwing in a reference to a historian for the sake of it is unlikely to win you any points with the markers – in fact, it might suggest to them you don’t have your own opinions, leaving a sour taste in their mouths!

Concern 2: What should I include?

One of the most unique – and potentially scary – aspects of Ancient History is the breadth of sources you can engage with. We’re not just dealing with historians who decided to sit down and research their topic of interest within the last hundred years. On the contrary, your ‘historical experts’ will be some of the most lauded philosophers and theorists, military generals and supreme leaders – most of them professing as much truth as an ancient copy of the Daily Mail. Beyond that, you also have the opportunity to analyse physical sources – artefacts, ancient graffiti, building programs.

And you’ll have to include a bit of everything in your responses!

Now, before you freak out, let me be clear. This is all in the benefit of having a diverse and nuanced answer to the questions NESA – and your school – poses. It’s not expected you include ten references to each of the three forms of evidence in your essays. Instead, NESA wants you to engage with all records of the past; weighing them up, constructing your judgment, and giving a balanced response.

However, NESA is aware that total equality in the forms of sources you use is almost impossible, so you don’t need to exact in this balance. Those of you studying Ancient Egypt or China will find it hard to locate ancient written sources, for instance, as these normally come from turn of the era European writers. Equally, archaeological sources for societies long destroyed will also be few and far between.

In order to strike this fine balance, my tip would be to colour your notes depending on the evidence. Modern historians were always red, ancient writers green and archaeological sources blue. That way, I could instantly see if a certain dot-point was lacking evidence.

Oh, and a quick note on modern writers – don’t use your textbook author! Most times, they aren’t academic historical works – they’re designed to make content easy to consume and understand – that’s why they produce so many good phrases!

Concern 3: What – or who – do I trust?

 If you’ve ever questioned the authority of your sources before – this is the point for you! Ancient History, and the writers that dictate it, can be pretty flawed. Often what we might cast as “primary sources” are being written years, if not decades or centuries, after the fact, and with no single stream of information, it’s safe to say that these ‘facts’ might get a little murky.

And that’s before we recognise that ‘historian’ or ‘archivist’ wasn’t a particularly rigorous job back in the day. Writers regularly imbue their own personal opinions and sinister undertones to their accounts, and their texts can often be mobilised as propaganda.

You know what? From our perspective – that’s okay! What’s even better is if we, in our essays, concede the limitations of our sources, and highlight why it’s important to have some scepticism when dealing with a particular writer. This nuance is what NESA loves to see, and if you’re aiming for those higher marks, you should have a minimum of two ‘limitations’ in an essay.

Even better would be to highlight how these limitations actually end up proving your point – perhaps it shows that the writer actually did perceive the foreign nation as a threat, or that a certain female leader did have enough influence to need to have a sinister justification behind their position.

If these ideas sound familiar, that’s because it makes up the basis for Part 2 of your Personality Study – NESA actually wants you to think about how and why history is constructed and recorded in certain ways, in a little bit of a History Extension tease.

Concern 4: How do I respond to a source? 

The final source-based issue I’ll be dealing with is the concept of provided sources – you know, the times when NESA asks you to reference “Source A and your own knowledge”, but Source A is an entirely indecipherable blob of a painting. Hopefully for you, this blob can easily be linked to at least part of the question or syllabus dot point at hand, but quite often NESA or your school will provide a source that answers one part of the question, and leave the rest up to you.

That doesn’t mean you can ignore the other aspect! Let’s say, you’re sitting a Core Study paper, and your source is an image of the Temple of Isis. The question, on the other hand, is “Assess the value of the sources for a historian studying foreign religious influence in Pompeii and Herculaneum”. If you just discussed the Cult of Isis, or Egyptian religion in this question, you would not get more than half the marks!

This is where knowing your syllabus comes into play – you have to be able to recognise that “foreign influence”, in our case, also includes Hellenic, or Greek, influence. So, time to bust out our knowledge of the Cult of Dionysus.

You want to use the source the paper provides as a kind of ‘springboard’ using it to launch to the next point, linked in some way. Returning to our religion example, you could link to the kinds of people it enticed, or the other evidence that exists of the movement.

However, you can also acknowledge the limitations of this particular source. This is great if the question explicitly probes the value of the evidence, because you can argue that Source A, in this case, doesn’t offer a complete picture, and instead, you have to have a more diverse approach.

Conclusion

Hopefully this advice can clear up some worries when dealing with sources and Ancient History. Remember, this is a hard subject! If you ever feel like you’re struggling with the amount of content and ideas to cover, I can guarantee you aren’t the only one in your class feeling that way.

With all of this in mind, I wish you the best of luck for the upcoming terms and approaching exams. Stay calm, rely on what you know – you’ll definitely smash it!

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