Ancient History Meets Modern Technology
The rise of the internet, digital photography, and digital word processing have made new techniques for preserving and studying the ancient past to flourish. Vanderbilt University has become a leader in the emerging scholarly field of “digital humanities”—the use of digital tools for research in the humanities. One such project is Syriaca.org.
“Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences.”
The American Council of Learned Societies (an organization promoting research in the humanities) issued a report in 2006 on the pressing issues confronting the study of the humanities in the age of the internet: “As more personal, social, and professional time is spent online, it will become increasingly important to have an online environment that cultivates the richness of human experience, the diversity of human languages and cultures, and the full range of human creativity. Such an environment will best emerge if its design can benefit from the strengths of the humanities and social sciences: clarity of expression, the ability to uncover meaning even in scattered or garbled information, and centuries of experience in organizing knowledge.” In response to this call, scholars have developed the field of “Digital Humanities,” including projects like Syriaca.org where digital tools are employed to study ancient cultures.
John Unsworth, et. al. “Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences.” (New York: American Council of Learned Societies. 2006). ALCS.org Website
[3D Model of XML Encoding for Syriac Manuscripts]
A student research group at Vanderbilt University, directed by Prof. David Michelson, has been working to transform 19th century Syriac manuscript catalogues into a new format for the world wide web. Each manuscript (bottom layer) is encoded in XML and then displayed as a webpage (top layer) on Syriaca.org. The encoding allows for the manuscript data to be stored in database with a number of “tags” which facilitate searching based on multiple criteria such as date, author, number of folia (pages), condition, title of texts, decorations, and previous owners. The completed project will produce a digital catalogue for the collection of over 1,000 Syriac manuscripts held by the British Library in London, England. This project is an example of how digital humanities projects combine methods from the sciences and humanities in order to preserve the past for the future.
Stephanie Fulbright, Charlotte Lew, David Michelson. [3D Model of XML Encoding for Syriac Manuscripts]. 2016. Syriaca.org
[Preservation Effort of Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux in Qaraqosh, Iraq]
The value of using digital tools to preserve endangered cultural heritage can perhaps be best seen in the work of the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library (HMML) to prepare digital images of Syriac manuscripts threatened by war in Iraq and Syria. HMML trains local partners such as those pictured here, Fr. Michael Nageeb, OP and his staff from the Centre Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux (CNMO) in Iraq. Fr. Nageeb and the CNMO have partnered with HMML in this work since 2009. In this photo from 2014, CNMO staff load Syriac and Arabic manuscripts for evacuation in advance of the so-called Islamic State’s capture of Northern Iraq. After the work of photographing the manuscripts, HMML undertakes the long work of cataloguing, a task using the reference tools of Syriaca.org.
Nageeb Michaeel. [Preservation Effort from Numérique des Manuscrits Orientaux in Qaraqosh, Iraq]. 2014. photograph, reproduction. Courtesy of Father Columba Stewart, OSB and Reverend Nageeb Michaeel, OP, Dominican Friars of Mosul