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Humanities in the Digital Age

Digital and computational technologies are impacting scholarship across all disciplines, but nowhere is the transformation as dramatic as in the humanities. Researchers are tackling questions about history, the arts, and culture in radically new ways: from using computers to detect patterns in massive amounts of digitized writing, to applying GIS technology to develop interactive maps that describe complex histories, to recreating archaeological sites and artifacts through 3-D modeling.

The investment of substantial resources at Penn Arts and Sciences in the digital humanities will capitalize on significant momentum at the School and extend Penn's presence as a leader in vital new areas of humanistic research.

Art and Archaeology of the Mediterranean World doctoral student Lucas Stephens uses the Phantom 2 Vision + Quadcopter to map an ancient city.

Justin McDaniel’s Thai Digital Monastery project creates online access that opens the walls of a Buddhist monastery.

To create the Thai Digital Monastery site, McDaniel, Professor and Chair of Religious Studies, has worked with monks and nuns as well as technical experts and scholars in Thailand and around the world. He’s now scanning Buddhist manuscripts, beginning with the collection at Penn Libraries. He plans to create hypertext editions where visitors can view the documents while seeing a running translation and hearing a monk or nun chant the words. “It will be a one-stop shop for the history of Thai Buddhism.”

Art History doctoral candidate Liz Lastra’s digital images of medieval churches in Spain let you zoom in until you see the toes of the saints. They are Gigapans, created using hundreds of photos that are stitched together by computer into what are essentially very high-resolution pictures. In addition, she is creating 3D digital models that make it possible to look down into a 13th-century baptismal font.

Lastra is examining three churches built at different times in a town on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain. One of Lastra’s goals is to join technology and the humanities. Her website of Romanesque churches in northern Spain provides access for other academics as well as her future students and all who are interested.

The centerpiece of the Humanities in the Digital Age initiative is the new Price Lab for the Digital Humanities. Funded through a major gift from Penn Arts and Sciences Overseer Michael J. Price, W’79, and his wife, Vikki, the Price Lab will incubate, and support complex interdisciplinary projects in the digital humanities conducted by undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research participants. The lab will become home to full-time technical support staff with the computational skill sets needed to successfully complete these important projects, provide training for the project participants, and manage the required technologies.

Three professors, 21 students, and a 6,500-year-old human skeleton fit perfectly into the largest classroom in Penn Museum’s new Center for the Analysis of Archaeological Materials (CAAM). Each professor led a section in a course designed to develop an interdisciplinary approach to excavation and analysis, something still rare in archaeology.

CAAM is an important partner in the digital humanities initiative. Because of the size of the museum’s collection—nearly one million objects from six continents—and its active research agenda, Steve Tinney says that it is “absolutely unique.” Tinney, the Clark Research Associate Professor of Assyriology, is CAAM’s director and is also leading a digital Sumerian language repository called Oraac (Open Richly Annotated Cuneiform Corpus.)