The humanities digitized

Reconceiving the study of culture

Jonathan Shaw
9 November 2012

7 min read

From social media to 3D virtualization, technology is changing the way the humanities are studied, the questions researchers ask, and the data they use in the search for answers. Harvard Magazine recently investigated just a few of the ways technology is changing “the vessels that store our culture.”

“If you feel queasy, I can turn this off,” offers Peter Der Manuelian.  
Manuelian, Harvard University’s King professor of Egyptology, is using simulated flight controls like those in a small aircraft to follow a line of tall palm trees that stretches across the Egyptian desert.

We’re moving fast and low, just above the treetops. As Manuelian swoops toward one particularly tall palm, his passengers instinctively raise their feet – an unnecessary precaution, for this flight is entirely virtual.

The passengers are students seated in front of a 23-foot-wide, wraparound screen on which Manuelian is projecting a virtual world  in 3D as part of a field trip to the Giza Plateau 4,500 years ago, at the time when the pharaoh Khufu died. Manuelian steers his tour group over to watch Khufu’s funeral ceremony in progress. The pharaoh’s mummified body lies in a coffin, surrounded by priests wearing leopard skins and mourners chanting spells. These are avatars, some with faces re-created from statues of Egyptian officials of that era.

Prompted by a student question, Manuelian next plunges his audience down a shaft to a plundered burial chamber, last seen 106 years ago when George Reisner, Harvard’s first professor of Egyptology, took the detailed photographs that made this re-creation possible. The class also visits the harbor beside the plateau, then the quarry where limestone blocks are being cut, and views the distant stone outcrop that will eventually become the Sphinx.


What Manuelian has created is a 3D visualization—a teaching and research tool more powerful than a video. “When I am asked a question about something at the site, we can navigate over in real time to look at it,” he says. “And we can experience the site at various times: when the pyramid is half built, or three-quarters built, or completed.”

Building a virtual world enhances research, too, underscoring what isn’t known. “The process raises all sorts of research questions: Was the mummy embalmed in the temple or in a purification tent somewhere else? Should this canopy be in the middle of the courtyard? How many statues were in the niches?”

Everything – from the relationships among buildings to the heights of walls and the locations of statues and funerary objects – is based on the best possible archaeological evidence: art objects, glass-plate expedition photo negatives, archaeological drawings, notes, and diaries. The data was assembled by Reisner and the Harvard University-Boston Museum of Fine Arts Expedition between 1905 and 1947, during their carefully documented excavations at Giza.
Manuelian oversaw the transformation of Reisner’s detailed records into a browsable public website ( with funding from the Mellon Foundation, making possible the creation of this immersive, long-ago world.

PETER DER MANUELIAN, Harvard University’s King professor of Egyptology, with a 3D projection of the subterranean chapel of Queen Meresankh III(Photo by Jim Harrison, reprinted with permission of Harvard Magazine)


Like pyramid-building itself, the work of the humanities is to create the vessels that store our culture. The digitization of archives and collections holds the promise of unifying the cultural record online, an unprecedented democratization of access to human knowledge.

Equally profound is how technology could change the way knowledge in the humanities is created. These fields, encompassing the study of languages, literature, history, law, philosophy, archaeology, religion, ethics, the arts and, arguably, the social sciences, are creating new digital vessels to gather, store, interpret and transmit culture.

In gathering and organizing data, ”faculty and students are creating digital collections, some of which turn out to be extremely valuable and don’t exist anywhere else,” says Peter K. Bol, Harvard University’s Carswell professor of East Asian languages and civilizations. They’re also creating the potential to greatly democratize scholarship—for example, by empowering ordinary people to participate in the creation, curation and interpretation of collections.


This is precisely what happened in January 2011, just a few miles from the pyramids, when protestors seeking the ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak launched the first revolution played out on social media.

On the West Coast of the United States Todd Presner, a professor of Germanic languages, comparative literature, and Jewish studies at UCLA, raced to capture this history as it happened, in Twitter feeds from eyewitnesses on the ground: “Gun shots heard in our street in Mohandeseen and the army is bringing in tanks.” Then, “Tanks on the streets in Cairo.”

The tweets, their rough locations pulsing on an accompanying map of the city, allow a user to go back in time and experience this event moment by moment. They record everything from concern over what could happen when soldiers encountered demonstrators to the voices of protest organizers: “Tomorrow we meet 9 A.M. in Tahrir [Square]. We will march on Mubarak’s presidential palace in Heliopolis. Down with the dictator.” Eventually, the tweets make clear that the army will not interfere with the populist uprising: “Protesters are writing ‘Down with Mubarak’ on all the army tanks near Tahrir Square. Soldiers love it!” and “Saw one pro-Mubarak supporter who was caught with a gun, arrested by protesters. He sat by army tanks, in tears.”


When the largest tsunami in Japan’s recorded history struck in March 2011, a core group of faculty members tried to capture the Internet’s ephemeral documentation of the crisis.

Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies (RIJS) had experience with web-archiving, related to the potential overhaul of Japan’s constitution a decade earlier. But the 2011 crisis was generating two orders of magnitude more archival material than that earlier project. The sheer volume of information, coming from 10,000 websites, was too great—and diverse in format—for RIJS to capture.
Fortunately they were not alone. The Internet Archive (a major American institution devoted to preserving the record of the Internet for posterity), Tohoku University in Sendai, Yahoo! Japan, All311 Archive (a newly created nonprofit Japanese organization), Japan’s National Diet Library, and many others were also collecting data.

Much of this material was saved, but not searchable. As the RIJS team forged partnerships with other institutions, the idea of creating a networked archive took shape. Harvard now hosts a significant portion of the metadata provided by its partners, which it has indexed, made searchable, and now supplies freely to all the project partners. Most of the raw material in the archive is stored elsewhere.

How to make the archive useful was another question. The materials were not just blogs and listservs, but also government documents, YouTube videos, sound recordings, photo collections, personal testimonials, maps, and social media. RIJS Director Andrew Gordon asked Konrad Lawson, a doctoral candidate with deep knowledge of Japan’s history, language, and society, to team with metaLAB, a Harvard lab that specializes in the nature of digital archives. metaLAB in turn partnered with Zeega, co-founded by architecture lecturer Jesse Shapins, to apply its search application to the challenge.

The resulting Digital Archive of Japan’s 2011 Disasters ( includes maps with layered geodata from Harvard’s Center for Geographic Analysis (directed by Bol); Twitter feeds and geographic information system data provided by the Hypercities Project; 50,000 photos from Yahoo! Japan; first-person accounts of the events; and thousands of official documents.

The software searches this vast array of material by making API (application programming interface) requests to partner archives. Photo sharing and social media companies use public APIs “to embed Twitter feeds into blogs or connect apps with Facebook,” Lawson says. “This is now leaking into the world of archives and the academic world in a big way.”


The archive is interactive, a truly distinctive feature. Users will be able to add tags (descriptions and keywords) to the material without changing the original, which might be stored on another continent. Those descriptive entries become part of an object’s metadata. With crowd-sourced information like this, “There is a risk that somebody might tag something incorrectly, so it is like Wikipedia in that sense,” Gordon acknowledges, “but we think the benefits far outweigh the risks.”

Users will also be able to further enrich the data by creating and saving specialized collections of material. This will allow other users interested in the same topics—the impact of the disaster on the fishing industry, for example—to access them.

“I think the quality of scholarship that can be produced, working with vastly expanded cultural corpora, and speaking in contemporary language to expanded audiences, represents one of the great promises of our era.”

Harvard Faculty Co-director, Berkman Center for Internet and Society

The archive also has a social element. ”As you move through it, you’re not just encountering items—websites and documents and media—you’re also encountering fellow archivists through user-generated elements like annotations and curated collections,” explains Kyle Parry, metaLAB’s liaison to Digital Archive of Japan. “So in a way, you’re becoming part of a community of archivists whom you may never meet in person, but with whom you’re collaborating.”

Whenever any participant “touches” an item, “it’s going to ripple,” Parry explains. “When a person adds something to a collection—a tag, say, or geographic information—or even when an object gets visited a lot, touching it will impact the value of that object. All these interactions will increase the chances that it’ll get discovered by somebody else.”

Students at Harvard University can visit the Giza Plateau as it appeared at any point in history, thanks to an immersive 3D experience created with historical data compiled by Harvard and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. (Photo by Peter Lu)


There are highly significant changes afoot in the humanities, but the idea that a revolution is underway is “sometimes overstated,” says Jeffrey Schnapp, who joined the Harvard faculty in 2011 as a faculty co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and director of Harvard’s metaLAB.

“The reality is that game-changing research, solutions to the richest, most challenging disciplinary questions, and major breakthroughs develop as a result of deep and long traditions of inquiry. Tools and technologies may vastly expand the compass of research and alter the basic conditions of knowledge production. But, in and of themselves, they don’t pose or answer interesting research questions. That’s what people do.”

Still, “Our ability to access and analyze information has created possibilities unimaginable only a few generations ago,” Schnapp says. “I think the quality of scholarship that can be produced, working with vastly expanded cultural corpora, and speaking in contemporary language to expanded audiences, represents one of the great promises of our era.” ?

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