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Once you have a topic, an interest, and an intent to research, the next step is to figure out what to do next. We're going to assume that you've looked and asked to see if there are already any published studies of the topic. (You might be astounded at the obscure artifacts that someone has done a book-length study on.) This process assumes that you're having to work from scratch.
For artifacts primarily known through artistic representations, the best place to start expanding your search is in the genre of picture-rich "coffee-table" surveys of medieval art and/or life. Simliarly useful are works on manuscript illumination. There are a lot of these available, and you can usually pick them up regularly second-hand at cheap prices. Having half a dozen or so of these to use as a first-level survey is fairly indispensible for me. (For artifacts primarily known through archaeological survivals, you may be better off starting with one or two exhaustive studies of particular sites, since general surveys may tend to focus on "pretty" artifacts.) Ideally, these general surveys will indicate the time and place of origin of each item -- at the very least, they need to give you some sort of reference identification (e.g., owner and catalog number). If you can't track down the context of an item, it's of very limited usefulness.
I mentioned this project on a number of occasions, but never got much in the way of input other than encouragement. I did get a few leads, though. My experience on other topics has been more productive. Put out the word to your friends, to any relevant internet groups -- be as specific and focused in your questions as possible. Keep track of people's suggestions -- even if they don't seem useful at the moment. Browse through your friends' libraries.
I did this as part of my "focused search" stage, but didn't find any useful pointers from it. People writing about the tapestry haven't been interested in the artifacts depicted in it, beyond the general motifs of nobility at play at being peasants. I was able to find photographs of the complete original tapestry, although I haven't managed to find color ones yet.
Start a systematic record of your data. Although you'll be tempted to cut corners now, remember that every piece of information you don't record now may be a piece you'll need to track down a second time later. Be generous with photocopies, and make sure you get all the relevant text (and bibliographic information) as well as the pretty pictures. Having acquired a flatbed scanner (which are astoundingly cheap), I've gotten in the habit of scanning pictures relevant to my research. This has three advantages over photocopies: you can get higher resolution, you have a version of the picture that you can enhance electronically to bring out the details, and if the picture is in color, it's a lot cheaper than color photocopies.
The absolutely minimal set of information you need to collect is:
When you have enough examples to begin getting a sense of what the relevant similarities and differences might be, consider starting an analytic record of the data. Make up a list of relevant characteristics (shape, size, color, materials, etc. depending on what it is) and add them to your time and place data and some sort of unique identification method (i.e., some way of knowing exactly which example you're talking about). Put it in a format where you can sort it and rearrange it by the various characteristics so that you can look for patterns that may emerge. I'm particularly fond of doing this in a spreadsheet, but there are a lot of ways of doing it -- even good old-fashioned index cards. I still use paper index cards when I need to look at complex, multi-variable patterns. If I'm working with relatively complex pictures, I may print out individual reference sheets with the background information and the picture so that I can refer to them easily.
As I came across examples of the type of pouch I was looking for (or even things that looked close), I started a text file with a bibliography of every book I had found something in, and then quotations of the relevant text. (I came to wish that I'd kept more specific track of books I'd looked at that had no examples, since it was useful data about the distribution in time and space.) This is in addition to photocopies if I didn't own the book. I also started collecting scans of the relevant artworks -- if disk space isn't an issue (and it tends not to be, these days) go for the highest resolution that makes sense given the "grain" of the printed source. After starting at 300 dpi, I went back in many cases and took 600 dpi scans. You can bring out details that weren't apparent when looking at the original publication this way. If you're going to be working with photocopies, enlarge them as much as possible when you take them, and make sure your contrast is the best possible. Alongside the text file and scans, I started an Excel spreadsheet with various forms of the information. One sheet had an entry for each artwork (each time it occured in a different publication), with the basic bibliographic information, current location of the work and catalog number (if available), and a rough estimate of the time and place of its creation. I gave these records an arbitrary reference number, in the order they were created, so that I'd have a convenient shorthand for relating other information back to this. On another page, I created a record for each individual pouch that showed up in the pictures (using the arbitrary reference numbers) and started adding descriptive information. As I gathered examples, I decided that the information I wanted to track included:
The next step is to start looking for repeating artifacts or patterns of distribution. Is there a context in which your artifact tends to appear? Are there things it tends to appear in combination with? Have you stumbled across any really rich sources of information? This leads to the next step.
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