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Documentation and Beyond: A Material Culture Approach  

Part I-Basic Documentation • Part II-Documentation as Method of Learning

This describes an approach to documentation that would both be useful for creating documentation for an arts and sciences competitions and exhibitions and, more importantly, be useful as a basis for understanding the Medieval and Renaissance world. The method described below for creating a documentation file is especially applicable to those arts and sciences in which a tangible artifact is created, such as clothing, ale, armor, scrolls, etc. An attempt will also be made to show how it can be followed for the performing arts as well. Clothing will be used as a frequent example as the author is most familiar with the application of this method to clothing and textiles.

This article will have two parts, the first will include a description of a proposed documentation file and its contents, the theoretical basis for its structure, and a basic checklist of questions the artisan may want to answer in collecting the documentation for his or her creation. The second part includes another checklist of questions that take the artisan from simple description and comparison of the object or performance to placing that object into the social and cultural context of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Part I. Basic Documentation

This method proposes the creation of a documentation file. The documentation file will serve several purposes. It should serve as a means for you to gage your progress in an art or science. It can remind you which things you tried were successful, and what mistakes to avoid. It should also get you to consider the techniques, designs, and materials you use and why you use them, perhaps prompting you to do more in-depth research on those aspects. The file will help you to teach what you have learned to others. Most importantly, if you follow the guidelines below, you should start to think of the societal and cultural context of what you are doing. And yes, from this you can create extensive documentation for your artifact for an exhibition or competition.

These ideas for documentation come from the author’s training in Material Culture studies. The basic outline for the “artifact analysis log” comes from models of artifactual study developed by E. McClung Fleming and Charles Montgomery. Charles Montgomery developed a checklist for identifying, documenting, and authenticating decorative arts objects in, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts.” Fleming would regard Montgomery’s method useful for the first step of the his method as described in, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model.”(1) Fleming considered every artifact to have five properties: history, materials, construction, design, and function, on which he suggested four operations be performed: identification, evaluation, cultural analysis, and interpretation, to extract as much information as possible from an artifact. In a SCA context, interpretation, in the sense that Fleming defines it, is of minor importance. We do a small amount of identification and evaluation, but we neglect cultural analysis almost completely although this could help make the Middle Ages and Renaissance come alive for us.

The Documentation File

A file should be created for every major or experimental project at its inception. This way it will become a record of your progress, your methods, the trials and errors, and what the project looked like in progress. For some of us, the strongest aspects of our work in an art or a science is hidden within the final product where it does not show on the surface. One of my strengths is in the authenticity of the internal construction of a garment, but when the garment is finished, this is hidden and no one can see how authentically it was done; documenting work in progress through photographs and an artifact analysis log would enable those critical interior details to be known.

Ideally, the file should contain four components: definition of the project, a source list, a log of activities and methods in creating an object, photographs of work in progress and of the finished project used in text, photocopies of specific references, and some cultural analysis.

Statement of Purpose

Define your project. What are you trying to do? Are you trying to make something that mimic exactly a period artifact? Are you trying to create an artifact that could have been done in period, but is not an exact copy? Are you just trying to make a functional item that looks “medieval”? Are you trying to make something that has existence in the SCA world, but not in the period world (such as cooler covers or favors as they are done in the Known World). In the SCA, it is all right to do the latter two ... as long as you are explicit about it.

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Source List

This should include a bibliography (with name of book, name of author, date of publication, publication location, and publisher; a discography, if appropriate (with name of artist, name of composer, if known, name of record, date, distributor/record label, and catalog number); a list of visual sources such as paintings, illumination, prints, extant artifacts, etc. (with name of artist or crafter, if known, name of work, if known, approximate date, current location, and museum or collection catalog number). This will be helpful for further research and for teaching others.

Photocopies of Specific References

You should have copies of pages from written sources and of photographs of visual works or artifacts that document your techniques, materials, designs, etc. with the appropriate bibliographic/museum/visual art citations as given in the source list above. In a sense, these are footnotes for what you do. This is especially important when you are doing something that is not widely known in the SCA, but is actually quite authentic. A recent example occurred when a lady exhibited a garment with a running-stitched hem. Since she was trying to write documentation from what she could remember on the spot, she did not have the exact citations (from two articles in scholarly journals, research done by the Museum of London staff, and two extant garments) to inform the judges that this was a proper period technique. The judges deducted points for workmanship. If you keep this kind of information on file, you will not find yourself in this situation. Period standards of practice are not the same as modern standards, and you need to document period practice when it differs significantly from modern practice. Competition judges come from all kinds of backgrounds, and not all of them have kept up with the latest research.

Photographs/Audio Tape/Video Tape of Work

The process of creation is as important as the final product. This segment of the file should be a collection of whatever appropriate media that shows the work in progress, displays internal detail, and shows the progression of steps in the creation of the object (video tape or audio tapes can also be used to document performing arts).

If an object is worn or needs to be seen used in order to fully appreciate the skill of the maker, photographs of the object being worn or used should be made. For garb, especially, the maker should have photographs of the garment being worn by the person for whom it is made. Proper fit, in this case, is a criteria for evaluation, and cannot adequately be judged from a garment lying flat on a table or even hung on a dress form.

Artifact Analysis Log

Minimally, record how you go about your project from beginning to end. Record the materials you used, the techniques and construction methods you used, the way you designed your object (remember, even something utilitarian is “designed”), and what functions the object will serve.

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Checklist of Basic Information

Using the five properties that Fleming has defined, a set of questions have created that the maker should attempt to answer to have fairly complete documentation. Not all of the questions have definitive answers yet; some never will. Yet these are the basic things to consider when you create an artifact that has a historical basis.

Literary arts and performing arts have their own structures and languages to describe the various components of a dance or a poem. The artisan working in one of these media should be familiar with the structures and vocabulary of that medium and adapt this category system accordingly. For performing arts, you may have to combine two or more of the categories. After a discussion with Master Niäll McKennett about how this method could be applied to dance, it was realized that it was difficult to separate “design” from “construction” in a dance. These properties are meant to be guidelines, not decrees set in stone.

Even just describing the object and how it compares with a period object can get very detailed. How detailed the answers to the following questions are is entirely up to you, but try to work at as high a level as you have the time and resources to do so.


  1. What is the place or culture of origin that you have derived your object or performance from?
  2. What is the time period of the object or performance?
  3. What are the regional/local characteristics for the artifact for the time and place of the object? What makes this object distinctively from a given time and place?
  4. What would have been the social class of the user of the object in period?


  1. List the components of the object and describe what they are made from (or performing arts, materials may include the step vocabulary of the dance, the musical instruments used, frequently used intervals or phrases of music or set of moves in dance or stock characters for certain types of theatrical performances. What are the basic building blocks of the performance?).
  2. How do these components compare with period materials?
  3. If you deviated from period materials, why? In the SCA, absolute authenticity is not demanded, in part, because it is not always possible to know what is authentic in every detail. While, you need not adhere to period practices, you should be aware of what period practices are (if they can be known), and be ready to explain why you have varied from them. If source materials are scarce, and you have to make an educated guess as to how something was made or what materials were used, you should be able to explain how you came to your conclusions.


  1. What plans, pattern or set of procedures did you use in construction your object or performance?
  2. From the beginning, how did you go about creating this object or performance?
  3. Optional: To the best of your knowledge, what steps would a maker from the time and place of the object have done to construct a similar object? How did you vary from period practice? Why?


  1. Describe the overall proportions and patterns your product forms. This will vary from product to product. Are you trying to create a characteristic shape appropriate to a location and time or to fit a certain stylistic genre.

    Include as appropriate: proportions, overall shape and the shape of the components, decorative motifs, colors, overall patterns, amount and type of decoration and where it is placed.

  2. What about the design of this product places it in a specific time and place?


  1. What are the obvious functions of this product?
  2. What are the cultural and social functions of the product? Does it mark its period user as a member of a particular social class, religious group, age group, gender, etc.?

This checklist includes more comprehensive information than is usually required by other suggested documentation systems, but will help you and the reader of the documentation have a thorough understanding of the product you have created and may inspire others. The next part calls for even more extensive information.

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Part II. The Social and Cultural Contexts of the Object

Having been asked by several people about how to document their examples of arts and sciences for exhibit or competition, I came to the conclusion that effective documentation should follow a plan that would prompt a person to include all the various kinds of information needed to get someone else started on a similar project. I have also come to the conclusion that documentation, instead of being an end in itself, could also be an effective tool for better understanding the Middle Ages and Renaissance, which is one of the purposes of the SCA.

Even the best documentation at displays and competitions often excluded the context of the object. While some artisans knew a great deal about how an individual Medieval or Renaissance object might have been constructed, they demonstrated no knowledge or only a rudimentary knowledge of what the object was used for, why it was used, who used it, whether it was a typical object of its time and place, and what meanings it had to the people using or making the object. By not examining these areas, we lose a tremendous opportunity to better know the time and places we are making objects from... we also lose the opportunity to feel as we are a part of those times and places.

Using the same five categories, the following are questions for further research if you are interested in looking at your art or science in greater depth. These are only a small sample of the range of question that can be generated by an artifact. They cover the such issues as the social class of the object maker or users, the economics of production and consumption, the gender characteristics associated with the object, and more. All of these can help you set your object in its cultural context.


  • What are some of the overall characteristics of the time and place of the your project? What are the basic economic structures, religious beliefs and practices, social and familial structures, political interactions?
  • How does your project relate to these structures? For example, you are making goblets in an early 16th century German style, or farsettos in a 1470s Florentine style, etc., would the object be made primarily for local consumption or be exported to other countries or regions? If you are creating a song or dance, would this performance piece be done primarily in one region, or would it be imported in some way to another? How would this occur?
  • What type of trade organization would you, as a maker of this object, have belonged to? How would it have been organized? What position might you have held in it? What social status would the organization have in its community? What type of social status would you have had belonging to this trade? What kinds of public presence would your trade organization have? Would it be involved in local politics and government?
  • What part does your trade play in the local economy? the regional economy? the European economy? How important is the role of your trade? How would your object have been marketed?

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  • From where would you have gotten your raw materials? Would you have produced them yourself or purchased them? Were they imported or produced locally? What trade organizations or guilds were involved in their manufacture or production? What are their social statuses and economic place in the community?
  • Would you have bartered for them or paid for them in cash or credit or a combination of both? How much would they have cost you? Would you have been more likely to have dealt with a man or a woman at the point of purchase?
  • If you are creating a dance, musical or theatrical piece, from where would you have learned the basic steps or musical or theatrical forms or conventions you used? Who would have employed you?


  • How would a maker from the time and place of your object have learned his/her skill? From apprenticeship? “Gentlemanly” experimentation (i.e., an alchemist or an amateur musician)?
  • If the maker would have learned from apprenticeship, what organizational structure supported this? What type of person would you have been apprenticed to? Your father/mother? Another family member? A business associate of your family? Who could (was eligible to) become a master crafter in your time and place? How long would your training have been? What would be included in your training?
  • If you are creating a dance, musical or theatrical piece, from where would you have learned the basic steps or musical or theatrical forms or conventions you used?
  • If “gentlemanly” experimentation, where would you have gotten your information about what you are doing? What type of education would you be likely to have had?
  • How much would your construction techniques be influenced by the available technology and raw materials? In what ways might they have been influenced by social and cultural attitudes?
  • What tools would you have used in construction? What would they have been made of? How would you have gotten them?
  • How expensive would your skills have been to purchase? Would would have purchased them; would would have been your clientele?

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  • Very little visual design in the Middle Ages or the Renaissance was without symbolism. What does the design of your object say? Is your symbolism religious or secular or have both religious and secular levels of meaning? From what sources do your symbols or design motifs come?
  • How did the system of proportion used relate to the aesthetic theories of the time and place of the object? Did the system of proportion have religious or philosophical significance?
  • The same questions can be asked as for the rhythm of the design, the shape of the object, and the number and placement of design elements. Are the designs rectilinear or curvilinear?
  • Were the motifs you used typical of the time and place of the object? What were their iconological significance? Were they heraldic; did they depict lineage and family connections? Did they suggest philosophical, political, or religious allegiances?
  • Were the colors you used symbolic? What attributes did your colors suggest for the wearer? For the maker?
  • If your product is a utilitarian object, is the object designed to do its function well? How does the design hinder or aid in the function of the object? Does your design contain “superfluous” design elements, elements not strictly needed to perform the function for which the item was designed? Why?
  • Does the design of your objects tell you about the way as person of the time and place of the object would have perceived space? About the way s/he would have structured her/his universe? Would it have mirrored social structure?
  • Is the emphasis on natural, organic forms or on more artificial, geometric forms? Is the horizontal or the vertical preferred in your time and place? What does this say about the mentality of the times?

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According to Fleming, “function involves both the concrete and abstract aspects of the artifacts, the reasons for its initial manufacture, its varied intended uses, and is unintended roles.” Function has and will include aspects of the other four properties, as an object functions on material, occupational, economic, social/ hierarchical, educational, legal, and aesthetic planes.

  • What are the most obvious functions of this object: For example, is it a head covering? a drinking vessel? a carpentry tool? What place do those obvious functions have in the time and place of the object?

    Let us use these two possible objects as examples. If the object was a headcovering, what role does the covering of one’s head have in a given time and place? Is it something primarily done by men, by women, or both? Are there religious significance to covering one’ head? Were they specific occasions where one was expected to cover one’s head? Did members of certain classes cover their heads and members of others did not? If the object was a carpentry tool, what importance was carpentry in the time and place of the object? What kind of things were made with this tool? Was it used as a vital tool for a person’s occupation, or as a tool belonging to a hobbyist?

  • What are the less obvious functions of the object? Look at the functions of the object in terms of :

    • Economic significances
    • Social significances
    • Male/female significances
    • Occupational significances
    • Religious significances
    • Aesthetic significances
    • Ethnic/national/subcultural significances
    • Recreational significances
    • Geographical significances
  • Who used this object? What does this object say about the taste of the owner/user? How fashionable was this object for its time and place? Was it the “cutting edge of fashion” or a more traditional object? How does this object reflect the standard of living enjoyed (or suffered) by the user or owner?
  • What does this object say about the general nature of the society that produced and/or used this object?

Cultural Analysis

If you have been working with some of the “further research” questions, you should be able to put the object or performance you have created into some kind of social context. One simple way of looking at social context is to look at what kinds of persons would have made the objects in question. Were they male or female? What economic, cultural, familial, and social status roles did their professions or occupations play in their society? Who “consumed” the object or performance? Who were the employers and buyers? What were their economic, cultural, familial, and/or social status roles? And, finally what roles did the object itself play in the society? If you have time, you may want to produce a short paper anything from a few paragraphs to several pages, addressing some of these issues. You may also want to include a short section on cultural analysis of the object in any documentation you create for competitions or displays.


Making an object that is both authentic and creative is a joyous act, but it is only a small part of the total picture concerning that object. Understanding how an object fits into its society, how it is embedded in the social and cultural networks of its time and place, how the society is reflected in the object and the object helps to shape the society can enhance your experience of the making of an object. It can also help to allow you to try to enter into the mind of a person from that time and place and make objects that are authentic in spirit (and materials and techniques, etc.). that are not direct copies of a known or depicted object. You may find it inspiring and rewarding to consider the larger context when you next start a project.


  1. Charles Montgomery, “The Connoisseurship of Artifacts,” in Thomas J. Schlereth, Material Culture Studies in America (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1982), 143–152 and E. McClung Fleming, “Artifact Study: A Proposed Model,” in Thomas J. Schlereth, Material Culture Studies in America (Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History, 1982), 162–171.

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