I am a secondary history teacher. I teach about a region that first was occupied by indigenous groups that lacked any written records, then later was taken over by European conquests. Some education consultants hired to advise teachers at my school somehow decided I need to teach about primary sources during a unit about the Clovis. I thought primary sources only really existed in historic times when people started to write things down, so this topic should come later. Are there prehistoric primary sources too?

  • 5
    Perhaps they are suggesting primary-sourcing the archaeologists who have written on the Clovis culture?
    – antlersoft
    Mar 9 at 14:49
  • 2
    Is writing by archaeologists considered primary sources?
    – Village
    Mar 9 at 15:02
  • 7
    Perhaps they want you to analyze pottery, jewels or decorations in buildings. Art is considered a primary source, too. Mar 9 at 15:32
  • 2
    @CarlosMartin - I suspected that was the case, but I needed your crib to find the answer below. Hat tip with gratitude.
    – MCW
    Mar 9 at 17:04
  • 4
    The primary sources for the Clovis culture are presumably the projectile points (including location and frequency) and associated tools.
    – Henry
    Mar 9 at 23:57

4 Answers 4


I share your skepticism. Were I in your shoes I'd examine the consultants'credentials to see if they have as much background in history as they do in education. The discussion will proceed differently depending on how well the consultants understand the concept of primary sources.

Having said that, if we work from the premise that the request is valid, then

Museums collect, preserve, and display objects of historical or cultural significance. Primary sources found in museums include artifacts, art, maps, tablets, sound and video recordings, furniture, and realia. shu.edu

Aside: I'd never seen the word realia before, but it is quite appropriate, and I regret that I can't find a context in which to use it more frequently.

My professional historian partner adds that archaeology (radiocarbon dating, other dating methods; information derived from measurement of artifacts), spectography, climate science etc. can be considered primary sources. DNA sampling, etc. Interdisciplinary studies modifies the older, restrictive definitions. As I struggle to find a category that includes all these examples, my professional historian partner summarizes, "Science, Bitches!"

Supporting (weaker, peripheral interpretations)

Primary sources are first hand accounts or direct evidence created by a witness about an event, object, or person. Some examples of primary sources include:

Artwork (painting, sculpture, print, performance piece, etc.) StAmbroseUniversity

Similar statement found at UniversityMaryWashington, although that scopes this only to the study of art history, which weakens the statement.

Update and aside: Not germane to the question, but I need to comment. The question asks if it is "correct" - The term "correct" is only meaningful within a frame of reference. I am constantly grateful and pleased that the field of history does not have governance, nor are there history police (no matter what J. Taylor asserts).

I'm arguing semiotics here. Is it useful to refer to "pre-historical primary sources?" I'd argue first of all that the way that the educational consultants in question have framed the question, the answer is no, the term "pre-historical primary sources" is not constructive, because it does not assist us to drive the student's educational development in the desired direction.

Are there educational outcomes that would be superior for the students that would rely less on secondary and tertiary sources and more on direct interpretation of artifacts produce by Clovis peoples, or on direct interpretation of geophysical, economic and other constraints on the civilization? Absolutely. That's not easy to teach, because direct interpretation requires knowledge/skills/abilities that are uncommon in secondary school students, including some far transfer skills that are going to be difficult to teach. On the other hand, if the team were to invest a fraction of the time and effort we've spent discussing "pre-historic primary sources" into actually developing an educational unit that would have allowed those students to explore primary interpretation, I'm relatively confident that we'd have at least a decent pilot, if not a solid course outline.

I'm not quibbling with OP's use of the term "correct"; I think the genesis of the problem isn't OP's word choice. Imprecise direction from the educational consultants have resulted in investment that is intellectually satisfying, but does not advance the task for which they were hired. (unless their contract refers to Stack Exchange reputation counts and question views.)


I would just generously interpret the full definition of primary source you quoted from wikipedia:

a primary source (also called an original source) is an artifact, document, diary, manuscript, autobiography, recording, or any other source of information that was created at the time under study.

[emphasis mine] and for the Clovis culture interpret this as any artifacts that where made at the time of the Clovis.

From a teaching perspective this means the kids should primarily look at the artifacts themselves and not so much at any interpretation of what these things are that were made by other researchers. So you can show them pictures of the stone tools or pottery shards and then ask them what they think these were used for.


I'm kind of taking a different approach here.

I need to teach about primary sources during a unit about the Clovis.

Maybe it's just the wording of the question, but if they asked you to teach 'about' primary sources and not to 'teach about the Clovis by including primary sources', then maybe the intention was to use the course about the Clovis to discuss the importance of primary sources and how they differ from secondary sources?

Depending on the courses covered each year, this may be one of the first courses that focused on a pre-history culture and may be in a unique position to highlight differences between what can be taught about the Clovis vs what can taught about Rome or another more recent culture. By this point, students should know the difference between primary and secondary sources but they may not know the importance of the distinction. They may have a view point akin to 'Why use secondary sources when primary sources are so much better?'

Also, since the advice was received from consultants, it would probably be prudent to confirm with them what they meant by their suggestion.


Primary sources are direct, immediate historical evidence, like artifacts and archeological remains, first-hand accounts, etc. Secondary sources are one-step removed from those, like a research paper.

Primary sources and secondary do not correlate with pre- or historical (written) sources. That's a different distiction. Both pre- and historical sources can be primary or secondary.

That said, primary sources might include original historical research only when the object of study is the research itself, which often is (aka: historiography).

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