The most exciting phase in historical research is to explore new archives. If you are a historian, I hope, you agree with me. The thrill is particularly high in archives with rudimentary documentation, where you can only guess what might be behind a particular shelfmark. Sometimes you have to find your way by trial and error. It’s like treasure hunting – there is a vague promise to find something highly valuable, but you never know whether and when you will find a grain of gold. The fun of treasure hunting, however, goes much beyond looking for the one piece of precious metal. While digging you will find many items you would never have thought of before, rubbish, curious artefacts, stones, and perhaps a silver coin. Similarly, in archives you come across many unexpected documents, some more, some less valuable for your research.
I love the moment when the archivist gently places a box with scarcely described material before me, and I feel the excitement rising like a child in front of a large birthday present. True, the contents of the box may be a disappointment, and many disappointing boxes are frustrating. But there are also lucky draws and surprises. Recently I sat in the Bodleian Library at Oxford and delved into the archive of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG) in search of conversion stories. Among a lot of rubble and some valuable documents for the project I came across curiosities which offer an unexpected glimpse into the past, undocumented in any catalogue or register.
Do you know this situation: You are sitting in a business meeting, that is equally unproductive and lengthy; your mind wanders off, you have to control yourself not to pull a face, you begin to scribble with your pen instead. That’s how a gentleman attending the SPG ‘Business for India Committee’ in November 1830 must have felt. His sketchy notes of the meeting have been preserved in the archive. The recorded contents of the meeting is less remarkable than the small masks and portraits over which he forgot to document the meeting more accurately – see: