Historical Research: Requirements and tools

Historical Research: Requirements and tools
by Trinity College Dublin

By the end of this section, you will be able to…

  • Understand how humanities research questions involving pre-modern manuscripts are being addressed
  • Identify areas where Digital Humanities Research Infrastructures and Heritage Science Infrastructures can contribute to solving these research questions

Historical Research Requirements

Traditional historical research methods provide powerful analytical tools but are limited in some key respects. When examining manuscripts, they are often unable to answer questions that require going beyond what can be determined by the naked eye. The way in which, for example, a specific manuscript was created and evolved into its final form remains essentially hidden, and the subject of conjecture. Heritage Science Infrastructures allow us to peel back the layers involved in the process by which a manuscript evolved into its final form. This may reveal dramatic information, such as previously hidden text and images, but it can also reveal less exciting but equally important detail. Such analysis enables historians to turn conjecture into fact and to employ manuscripts as sources that allow us to dig deeper into past societies. Heritage Science Infrastructures also enable historians to develop new questions, questions that would not otherwise have been asked of a manuscript. Previously, connections between manuscripts could often be made only by comparing handwriting and artistic styles. Pigments and inks, however, can now be categorised using non-invasive techniques. This opens entirely new ways of exploring connections between manuscripts. In addition to enabling greater access to fragile material that cannot be easily viewed, Digital Humanities Infrastructures offer new ways of displaying the results of this ‘layered’ scientific analysis. However, like Heritage Science Infrastructures, Digital Humanities also creates the possibility of asking new questions. These questions enable, in particular, new approaches to the analysis of the textual content and layout of manuscripts. Like Heritage Science Infrastructures, the application of digital tools increases the value of manuscripts as sources. Together, these approaches have the potential to transform manuscripts from their traditional, primary role as repositories for text into truly multivalent resources for the examination of past civilisations.

Tools to assist historical research

Digital Humanities approach to pre-modern manuscripts research

The strengths of Digital Humanities research methods are often located in the analysis of textual phenomena at scale. Computers excel at identifying and statistically measuring patterns in large quantities of text, and so are often employed to analyse authorship style, genre or other features of writing. As programming languages and research software have become more accessible, the community of researchers employing them has grown and has in turn created resources like the “Programming Historian”, a series of tutorials on digital history research techniques. Programming libraries for tasks such as information extraction, topic modelling, and network analysis now enable many more researchers to undertake exploratory data analysis that may identify patterns of interest at scale. For example, once the text of a manuscript is digitised, named entity extraction can be used to identify person and place entities, supporting research into spelling variation, source texts, and the social and geographic context of the manuscript’s creator. Beyond the direct application of digital tools to historical research, a range of infrastructural developments in Digital Humanities now supports better exchange, linking and annotating of digitised manuscripts. One significant example is the International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF), a project that aims to improve the way image collections from multiple sources can be used, ultimately in order to provide researchers with a more effective user interface. IIIF allows researchers to view, compare, annotate and cite manuscripts using shared technical specifications that increase the functionality for users and lower costs and complexity for developers and institutions. This is particularly important for pre-modern manuscript research, since access to the objects themselves is often difficult, and related manuscripts may be held in multiple collections around the world.

Scientific analysis of pre-modern manuscripts

Scientific analysis of historic manuscripts has been used over the years to address research questions related to the history of the manuscripts, assisting the further understanding of the relationship between history, heritage and society.

More specifically, a combination of various complementary non-invasive and/or invasive analytical techniques on historic manuscripts can provide:

Material Identification

Substrate: identification of the substrate and the method of preparation, e.g. the provenance of the paper or the animal species used for the parchment and how the substrate was sized.

Writing materials: identification of various ink compositions

Illumination materials: identification of the colouring and gilding materials as well as the binders (the binding media used to bind the pigment powder together to form a paint)

Colour as seen by the human eye cannot always distinguish between different materials, as different paints can sometimes give the same colour under certain lighting conditions (e.g. daylight, candle light etc.). In the example below (Figure 1), three pairs of paint-outs with each pair displaying the same colour are presented. Even though visually the two paint-outs in a pair look similar in colour, spectroscopic analysis shows that the materials are not the same. The pairs are: 1) cobalt blue and ultramarine; 2) azurite and smalt; 3) Prussian blue and indigo in animal glue binder. The reflectance spectroscopy (reflectance or the fraction of light reflected off the material plotted against λ – the wavelength of light) in the visible/near-infrared regime (400 to 1000 nanometres (nm)) gives the characteristic spectral fingerprint of a material. Different materials give different spectra. Other types of spectroscopy, such as X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy gives the identification of the composition of the elements that make up the material. These two types of spectroscopy complement each other.

Examination of production techniques

In the example below (Figure 2), spectral imaging is used to capture images with a set of 10 different filters with central wavelength ranging from 400nm to 880nm, and thus collecting millions of reflectance spectra in one go. The near-infrared (880nm) image revealed the initial sketches as infrared light was able to penetrate the painting layer.

Examination of alterations/ modification or additions on the original manuscript

Scientific imaging of historic manuscripts, e.g. near infrared images, ultraviolet fluorescence images or spectral imaging, allows the investigation of possible alterations and later additions on the original manuscript.