Digital Humanities and Heritage Science Research Infrastructures

Digital Humanities and Heritage Science Research Infrastructures
by Marie Annisius

Digital Humanities and Heritage Science Research Infrastructures: New Approaches to the Study of Pre-Modern Manuscripts

By the end of this submodule, you should be able to…

  • Recognise the complexity involved in the study of pre-modern manuscripts and the specific challenges connected with their analysis
  • Understand how Digital Humanities and Heritage Science Research Infrastructures can contribute to the examination of pre-modern manuscripts

Pre-modern Manuscripts

Extant manuscripts are central to the work of historians in reconstructing the history of pre-modern civilisations. While archaeology, numismatics and art are, for example, all rich sources for the study of the past, written culture, where it exists, opens important windows that would otherwise remain closed. Written culture is often preserved via manuscripts made from a variety of materials, most commonly, in western Europe, animal skins. Working with pre-modern written culture presents substantial challenges. These can arise from the languages in which texts are written, many of which are no longer in common use; to the type of handwriting and abbreviations employed; to unusual formats; to deciphering the symbolism connected with choices of colour, imagery and materials. In the last 200 years, the historical profession has developed robust palaeographical and codicological tools to address the challenges connected with accessing and interpreting the texts contained in manuscripts; in recent decades, historians have begun to develop new interests in decoding the symbolic features. However, there remains considerable untapped value in these sources. Certain research questions cannot be addressed using the traditional ‘toolkit’ that historians have employed to date. Digital Humanities and Heritage Science research infrastructures provide new tools that can help to realise more fully the value of manuscripts as a resource and, in doing so, help to broaden our understanding of the past.

Digital Humanities Research Infrastructure for pre-modern manuscripts

Work in Digital Humanities has greatly expanded the means and methods for studying pre-modern manuscripts and, just as importantly, developed ways to publish scholarly editions in digital form. The most important of these developments has been the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) guidelines begun in the late 1980s, which have supported textual scholarship in new ways and at new scales. The current version of the guidelines (‘P5’) provide the basis for rich, structured data about digitised manuscript images and transcriptions, as well as layers of metadata. These data are typically organised in a format that is both human and machine readable and can support many kinds of processing and analysis, such as entity extraction, bibliographic and source analysis, and modelling of relationships, such as author correspondence networks. Digitisation and tools like the TEI guidelines have also enabled digital publication in a variety of new forms, first through CD-ROM and then on the web. Unconstrained by limitations of space and cost, digital scholarly editions can include very high-resolution images, layers of visual or textual annotation, translations, critical apparatus, and notes – far more than any printed volume could feasibly cover. Digital publishing has also created greater opportunities for manuscript research to ‘go public’. As humanities research has become increasingly public-facing, manuscript digitisation has also enabled non-specialist involvement through crowd-sourcing or ‘citizen science’ initiatives.

Heritage Science Research Infrastructure for pre-modern manuscripts

Heritage Science is a relatively new term that was coined just over 10 years ago to encompass the established fields of Archaeological Science, Conservation Science and Technical Art History, but it has since expanded to include all sciences applied to the study of heritage. In this broader definition, the part of Digital Humanities that concerns heritage documents could also be part of Heritage Science. Drawing on the experience of a number of EU funded research infrastructures for conservation science and archaeology, European Research Infrastructure for Heritage Science (E-RIHS) is being established to support interdisciplinary research in heritage science. Specifically, the research infrastructure involves 4 platforms ARCHLAB (archives), DIGILAB (virtual facilities), FIXLAB (fixed facilities) and MOLAB (mobile facilities). There is clearly an overlap between DIGILAB and parts of Digital Humanities that concerns heritage.

While the application of science to manuscript studies goes back to at least the 18th century, science has been used only occasionally and mainly for the revealing of faded or erased writings. Manuscripts are fragile and most libraries and museums today would not allow samples to be taken from manuscripts for scientific analysis which limits the range of analysis that can be conducted. In the last decade or so, technological advances have made non-invasive scientific analysis and imaging tools increasingly available for the characterisation of manuscripts. This development has meant that increasingly manuscripts can be analysed scientifically to characterise the materials and the production method in addition to revealing hidden writings. The materials and how they were used on manuscripts often allow us to distinguish between the workshops of production, different cultural or regional influences and to inform the trade and technological exchanges between different geographic locations which in turn are determined by the geopolitics at the time.