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Digitizing the Humanities

When archaeologists and anthropologists head off to examine ancient ruins, they still pack the traditional tools – the pointed trowel, the measuring tape, the hand broom and the dustpan. But these days their backpack is also likely to contain a laptop computer to help record and preserve the fruits of their careful searches.

More and more, contemporary researchers are turning to electronic measuring tools, databases, geographical information systems and reconstruction software to help discover and preserve data from old burial grounds, living camps or ancient cities. On the narrative side of this history, educators also are discovering that digital humanities tools such as interactive websites offer valuable ways to introduce students to and excite them about the lifestyles and cultures of ancient peoples.

This mingling of old knowledge and new technology is becoming common at UTSA, where faculty and students are learning how to build interactive tools that preserve information in useful ways for future scholars.

Mapping the Ancient World

“My students built something that all students in this school and elsewhere will be able to use as a resource in the future,” said William Duffy, a lecturer in classics and philosophy at UTSA. His undergraduate students in a recent Ancient Travel and Ethnography class were sent on a virtual trip through ancient cities. During their “Roadrunners’ Guide to the Ancient World” project, the students used the Internet, books and other available resources to learn and document all they could about less commonly studied ancient cities from the oldest known civilizations. They then wrote copy and assembled visual aids for travel guide websites to each of their cities. The guides covered topics such as local demographics, economy and customs, and worthwhile tourist attractions that visitors might want to see.

Students were required to choose two cities each, one in either Greece or Italy and one outside those regions, and Duffy stipulated that all city descriptions had to contain information from throughout its settlement in antiquity. Future classes will be assigned lesser-known cities from the Hellenistic period, or the years between the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the conquest of Egypt by Rome in 30 BC. Many took to the challenge with gusto, Duffy said, adding, “I didn’t even know myself about some of the cities the students picked.” The class project ended up with 52 cities all over Europe and the Middle East, including locations in what are now England, Germany, Pakistan, Libya and Ukraine.

“They could actually see how big the ancient world really was,” Duffy said. “They put themselves in the shoes of a Roman trader or traveler who would go there.”

Students familiar with technical requirements helped build a web interface that their classmates could access. As the semester progressed, student-produced material began to go online (see the web extra). From a Google map on the front page, visitors can link to any of the cities, where there are photos and narratives about the history and commerce of the city, along with links to other informative sites.

Besides learning about the history and culture of their project cities, students also developed and honed skills in writing, visual presentation and basic web technology, Duffy said. They even impressed their teacher by finding things he did not know. “I don’t think I have ever learned as much from a student research project as I did from this one,” Duffy said.

Digital Reconstruction

UTSA anthropology graduate student Leah McCurdy is a different sort of time traveler who is also learning how to incorporate digital tools. With a strong interest in anthropological, architectural, and archeological research, McCurdy earned a Master’s degree with a thesis that incorporated three-dimensional modeling and virtual reconstruction of the Xunantunich Palace, an architectural marvel built between 750 and 900 AD in the Maya lowlands of what is now the Central American country of Belize. The nation was a hotbed of Mayan culture and is home to some of its most majestic remnants.

Northern façade of the Castillo of Xunantunich, Belize.

Screenshots from McCurdy’s virtual reconstruction of the Xunantunich Palace.

McCurdy is now building on her earlier research as she works toward a doctoral degree in anthropology. She is undertaking a detailed examination of the Castillo, a magnificent, soaring stone edifice that is part of the Xunantunich complex and is one of the tallest ancient buildings in Belize.

Initial excavations and studies of this major Central American tourist attraction were completed some years ago. McCurdy is continuing excavations and adding interpretive work to build upon this existing knowledge. With the latest in computer-assisted tools, she is working to understand the construction of the Castillo from start to finish, including the skills and training needed and acquired by the people who built it – the architects, brick masons and general laborers. She is also incorporating earlier research into a single three-dimensional database for a comprehensive look at ancient buildings.

“Architecture has been recognized as an important evidentiary component of archaeology since its birth, digital tools offer precise and accurate ways to explore architecture from an archaeological perspective.”

“I am trying to interpret and understand everything that goes on – the design, planning, recruitment of labor and actual construction. Virtual reconstruction helps you in all those different aspects.”

An electronic record also preserves images and data for the long term.

“We record everything now, just in case something happens and you don’t have the actual artifact or structure in the future,” McCurdy said. “You have a record that is stored there for future archaeologists to come along and put together in some different way or combine it with other data for a different research project.”

Even with all these technological improvements, most archaeologists still believe there is nothing like the real thing. Computers can never replace the thrill of fieldwork, the painstaking, detail-oriented excavation of archeological sites inch by inch, sifting mounds of dirt in search for the artifacts left behind by people who walked the Earth thousands of years before us. What contemporary archaeologists are doing is developing ways to use modern tools to enhance learning and preserve the knowledge derived from this fieldwork for future students.

“You just can’t do it without digging,” said McCurdy, who has made six field trips to Xunantunich. “If you don’t get your hands dirty, it doesn’t seem like real archaeology.”

Web Extra

Visit the Roadrunner's Guide to the Ancient World

View Leah McCurdy’s virtual architectural reconstruction of Xunantunich