Chelsea A. M. Gardner, Gwynaeth McIntyre, Kaitlyn Solberg, and Lisa Tweten
The increasing amount of digital projects relating to the field of antiquity is especially promising for the future of traditionally archaic academic fields, including Ancient History, Classics, and Classical Archaeology. An enormous number of fragile, irreplaceable artifacts have survived from antiquity, but only a small number are accessible to the public. The vast majority are housed in storage rooms or isolated collections in museums and universities, as well as private collections around the world. For decades, this global scattering of antiquity resulted in widespread inaccessibility to ancient artifacts for both teaching and research. Through the process of digitization and the increased presence of online databases, these materials are finally becoming available to a wider audience.
How, then, does digitization relate precisely to making? In our case, our small-scale digitization project From Stone to Screen (FSTS) has challenged the expected raison d’être of Classics by shifting research from literary critiques and historical analysis to the creation of several websites and digital versions of over a thousand artifacts. We strive to deliver fragments of history through the digital reconstruction of these artifacts. We encourage interaction through teaching modules designed for our digitized collections, and we are “making” by creating spaces where students can interact with ancient objects without fear of damaging irreplaceable artifacts.
Universities are exerting increasing pressure on individual scholars to become involved in digital endeavors; however, such work should meet the same standards of relevance and applicability as any other academic work. As a case study, this chapter presents how FSTS approaches the “Three Rs” for creating sustainable digital humanities (DH) projects: Research, Relevance, and Replicability, a framework we created for practicality and mnemonic convenience, but also because we firmly believe these three principles should underpin any DH project.
FSTS is a multidisciplinary, collaborative, open-access digitization project that hosts high-quality, 2-D scans and images of ancient artifacts from the collections of the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada. At present, the project has digitized and published five collections:
- 1. The project’s inaugural collection, The Malcolm McGregor Squeeze Collection, a corpus of Greek epigraphic squeezes (filter paper impressions of ancient Greek stone inscriptions), was given to the Department of Classical, Near Eastern and Religious Studies (CNERS) in 1975. This collection represents the culmination of McGregor’s life work and is the inspiration for the project’s title.
- 2. The George Fuller Collection, featuring 27 artifacts collected from Cairo, Jerusalem, and Baghdad during the 1930s, was donated to CNERS by George Fuller Jr. in 2009.
- 3. The O. J. Todd Coin Collection, a selection of predominantly Roman coins dating from the fourth century B.C.E. to the fourth century C.E., was bequeathed to CNERS by emeritus professor O. J. Todd in 1999.
- 4. The Harvey F. Blackmore Collection comprises 196 artifacts from Bahrain and was donated to the UBC’s Laboratory of Archaeology in 2014.
- 5. The Ancient Artefacts Collection, currently housed at the Rare Books and Special Collections department of the UBC Library, contains two ancient papyri from Roman Egypt and seven cuneiform tablets.
To bridge the gap between DH research and DH pedagogy, our project strives for a continued presence in the classroom, both in university courses and high school curricula. Objects from the collections are transported to various classrooms for hands-on exposure to the ancient world. Following this initial introduction, students are encouraged to further pursue their interests in antiquity through the digital resources available on our website. For language classes, the digitized squeezes are used to broaden student appreciation for the importance of primary source materials and are the basis for interactive assignments that allow students to engage directly with documents from antiquity. We encourage student contributions that, to date, include bibliographic research on the artifacts in the Fuller collection, cataloguing the Blackmore and Todd artifacts, translations of Greek texts into English, interactive maps of communities mentioned in the Athenian Tribute Lists, and open-access teaching modules. All research done on the materials in the FSTS collections is made available online for future study and curriculum use; therefore, the FSTS material grows continuously as a resource for teaching and research. Ancient Greek language, epigraphy, archaeology, history, and other specialized courses all stand to benefit from the incorporation of primary materials into research and teaching, and they also demonstrate to students how one can interact with and study ancient material. Ultimately, we hope that our current database will continue to be expanded and developed through direct, hands-on learning by students of all levels.
Furthermore, FSTS maintains a popular blog with regular posts of interest to scholars and the general public alike. Blogs are quickly becoming a standard tool for academics to disseminate their research, publications, and projects without enduring an arduous publishing process. Broadcasting our research, outreach, and other projects online not only helps to advertise the project but also creates invaluable contacts in the DH community.
In addition to the “Three R’s,” FSTS’s strength lies in its threefold goals for longevity:
- 1. Ensuring a sustainable project afterlife through the open-access, 2-D image database hosted by the UBC library; 
- 2. Full disclosure and encouragement of replicability of all imaging and digitization methods; and
- 3. Making pedagogical resources (classroom-ready modules) freely available to a global community.
Research, Relevance, and Replicability: Ensuring Sustainability
Graduate students conceived of, initiated, and currently direct FSTS. It is designed to facilitate scholarly research and collaboration between all levels of the academy. In our case, undergraduate, graduate, post-doctoral, early-career scholars, and tenured professors work together on various aspects of the project. Our ultimate goal is for scholars around the world to collaborate with us and use our digital resources in their own research and teaching. The McGregor Squeeze Collection in particular includes copies of some of the most important documents from the zenith (mid-fifth century B.C.E.) of the Athenian Empire: the so-called Athenian Tribute Lists (ATLs). These lists provide crucial information regarding the political makeup of the Athenian Empire and the Greek alliances that existed in the fifth century B.C.E. The ATLs themselves are extremely fragmentary and comprise several hundred marble blocks of varying size, most of which are housed today in the Athens Epigraphical Museum. By creating digital resources for these squeezes alongside images of the stone fragments themselves, scholars are able to contribute to ATL research from all corners of the globe. One of our future project goals is to locate the remaining squeezes (those that McGregor did not possess and that number in the thousands) to create a complete online compendium of these political documents.
We believe FSTS maintains relevance because its design is closely connected to the academic interests and goals of its founding members and its intended (scholarly) audience — goals that are appropriate in terms of our budget and time constraints as early-career scholars and graduate students. Moreover, FSTS provides access to squeezes and artifacts that would otherwise sit unstudied and largely inaccessible in various storerooms and private collections. The fragility of some of these artifacts makes empirical study even more difficult as regular handling further contributes to their degradation. The process of digitization thus helps to protect the physical objects themselves, while enabling many more individuals to access artifacts and documents from antiquity.
Finally, our technique for digitizing the squeezes produces high quality, 2-D digital images, and it is fully replicable and accessible to any interested party. Since developing our imaging process in 2013, we have shared our technique at conferences and in publications, and we invite and encourage academics with similar collections to replicate our process. Likewise, we welcome interested parties to use our pedagogical materials in their own teaching and learning environments. These materials are open-access, ensuring that our project remains available to a global community.
With regard to replicability in particular, we want to make a point about “making” and, more specifically, our decision to situate collections in a 2-D digital realm (rather than concentrating on 3-D modeling and fabrication). A fetish for the tactile is now quite common in academic research; it manifests through an obsession with the conversion from tactile object to digital record to tactile object once again. While we acknowledge the importance of 3-D objects to humanities inquiry — and, in fact, practice tactile interaction with our objects in various classrooms — 2-D digitization and 3-D fabrication are not mutually exclusive. They are complementary processes, particularly in the field of archaeology. Although the intimate experience of holding an object in hand may be difficult to replace, it is directly associated with issues of safety, cost, and preservation. 3-D models of our artifacts would solve problems regarding the security and transport of ancient objects, but would also be accompanied by their own expenses. (3-D modeling is a time-, resource-, and labor-intensive process.) Moreover, the fact remains that a 3-D print and a 2-D/3-D digital model of an ancient artifact share one crucial characteristic: neither is the ancient artifact. Therefore, we resist the popular assumption that 2-D digitization is somehow inferior to fabrication. Again, they are complementary processes. And in the case of FSTS, 2-D replicas are less expensive, safer for the primary materials, and more accessible to a wider audience.
The authenticity of digitized items is at the forefront of modern archaeology. As the wholesale destruction of sites, museums, and antiquities plays out in the Middle East, for instance, the current generation of archaeologists must seriously consider the value of replicated objects — both on screen and in hand. These replicas are becoming our only means to study select ancient objects in the face of rampant destruction and disregard for material culture and history. Studying replicas in place of originals is not ideal. However, this problem is not new to Ancient History, Classics, or Classical Archaeology. Many of the ancient Roman marble statues surviving from antiquity are themselves copies of Greek bronze statues long since lost and known only by these Roman replicas. While the option of digital or printed replicas is technologically new and represents a far different set of skills than painstakingly hand-carving marble, the fundamental questions of authenticity and loss of access to originals are not substantially different. When faced with the complete destruction of the original artifact, replicas of any sort become invaluable, not just as tools for academic study but as the only means by which we can preserve cultural materials. Debates about whether replicas should be digitally or physically produced will ultimately be determined by the resources available to the parties undertaking the work on a case-by-case basis.
The response to recent instances of cultural destruction makes it clear that archaeologists are embracing any and all means at their disposal to preserve threatened cultural materials. However, the advent of 3-D printing will create new challenges for the field and for museums that once held a monopoly on the preservation and presentation of artifacts. Will people still pay to go to a museum when they can download and 3-D–print copies of ancient urns, vases, statues, and artworks for their own homes? Will a recreated object have the same value for display as the ancient original? Will a future generation of scholars and enthusiasts reject the “easy” replication of 3-D printing in favor of casting their own bronzes, throwing their own pottery, or carving their own marble statues? We may arguably learn far more about ancient objects by attempting to replicate their processes of creation than by re-creating them digitally. Future debates may therefore center on questions of authenticity of material and process rather than on comparisons between digital and physical products. Archaeologists will continue to negotiate the value of technological advances in the preservation and replication of damaged, inaccessible, and destroyed artifacts, including those destroyed by deliberate means or merely through the slow and inevitable degradation of time. All of us involved in From Stone to Screen aim to digitize and preserve a small fragment of antiquity, and we are grateful to have the opportunity to provide the upcoming generation of scholars and archaeologists with some of the necessary tools they will need for the reality of scholarship in our modern world.
1. Many museums, art galleries, and universities are making their collections available online. Examples include the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives (http://www.asia.si.edu/research/squeezeproject/), Indiana University’s Art Museum online galleries (http://www.iub.edu/~iuam/online_modules/coptic/cophome.html), and the American Numismatic Society’s MANTIS database (http://www.numismatics.org/search/).
2. This pressure is, of course, frustrating due to the ongoing difficulty of making DH projects “count” in terms of traditional scholarship (Brier 390).
3. For opposing views on DH in research and pedagogy, respectively, see Kirschenbaum, “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” and Brier, “Where’s the Pedagogy?”
5. See www.fromstonetoscreen.com/references-and-links/teaching-modules/. All pedagogical resources created by students will be made available on our website as they are completed.
6. See Spiro for a summary of these debates and the various approaches and attempts to define digital humanities (16–17). See also Gold, “The Digital Humanities Moment;” and Ramsay, “On Building.”
7. Our collaboration with UBC’s Digital Initiatives ensures the sustainability of this project through their commitment to building and preserving “sustainable digital collections to support and enrich the educational, cultural, and economic endeavors of the University, the people of British Columbia, and communities beyond” (http://digitize.library.ubc.ca; “About Us”). Challenges with managing and maintaining a digital project (largely ignored in DH scholarship) are addressed in Reed, “Managing an Established Digital Humanities Project.”
9. Exhibits help increase the “browsability” of collections. Issues associated with digital databases and the problematic reliance on the search box are discussed in Whitelaw, “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.”
10. See Tweten, McIntyre, and Gardner; “From Stone to Screen: Digitally Recapturing Antiquity” (Digital Classicist New England Seminar Series, Boston, March 2015); “From Stone to Screen: Squeezing into the World of Digital Archaeology” (SAA Annual Meeting, San Francisco, April 2015); “From Stone to Screen: Putting the Squeeze on Digital Epigraphy” (AIA Annual Meeting, New Orleans, January 2015); and “From Stone to Screen: Digitizing Epigraphic Squeezes” (EAGLE Europeana International Conference, Paris, October 2014). For a complete list of conference presentations and publications, see http://fromstonetoscreen.com/curriculum-vitae/.
11. See Jones, The Emergence of the Digital Humanities.
Brier, Stephen. “Where’s the Pedagogy? The Role of Teaching and Learning in the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, 390–401. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
From Stone to Screen. http://fromstonetoscreen.com/.
Gold, Matthew K. “The Digital Humanities Moment.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K. Gold, ix–xvi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Jones, Steven E. The Emergence of the Digital Humanities. New York: Routledge, 2013.
Kirschenbaum, Matthew. “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?” ADE Bulletin 150 (2010): 55–61.
———. “What is ‘Digital Humanities,’ and Why Are They Saying Such Terrible Things about It?” differences 25, no. 1 (2014): 46–63.
Ramsay, Stephen. “On Building.” In Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, ed. Edward Vanhoutte, 243–47. Farnham, U. K.: Ashgate Publishing, 2013.
Reed, Ashley. “Managing an Established Digital Humanities Project: Principles and Practices from the Twentieth Year of the William Blake Archive.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 8, no. 1 (2014). http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/8/1/000174/000174.html.
Spiro, Lisa. “‘This Is Why We Fight’: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities.” In Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Matthew K Gold, 16–36. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012.
Tweten, Lisa, Gwynaeth McIntyre, and Chelsea Gardner. “From Stone to Screen: Digital Revitalization of Ancient Epigraphy.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 10, no. 1 (2016). www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/10/1/000236/000236.html.
Whitelaw, Mitchell. “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections.” Digital Humanities Quarterly 9, no. 1 (2015). www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/9/1/000205/000205.html.