What is a computer programmer doing in the Classics department?

authored by Frank Lynam at 16/12/2014 11:26:20

Teasing out the relationships between Digital Humanities and the humanities


This paper broaches a basic question: what does it mean to be a scholar of Digital Humanities operating in the world of Classics? And yet as with many simple questions, candidate answers tend to be less than self-sustaining, universally accepted or ultimately satisfying. Digital Humanities is a nascent field that is still struggling to define its boundaries or as Willard McCarty, that doyen of the group, puts it, it is still very much in the process of its own myth creation. Defining the intellectual parameters in which one operates is far from the exercise in navel-gazing that some might have it. Reflexivity of practice is crucial to not only the manner in which we engage with our subjects but also at a more prosaic level as an instrument for dealing with funding mechanisms and for garnering institutional backing. By looking back on the author’s experience as a transient inhabitant of both worlds, it is hoped that this paper will start a discussion about how Digital Humanities exists as an intellectual sub-system within the Trinity College Dublin Classics department and also more widely as a node of the global web of knowledge creation.[1]


I would like to begin by saying that I am delighted to have been given the opportunity to talk to you today about my research. I am always glad to talk about what I have been working on but particularly so in this case as it was in this very department that my academic life first began all those years ago.

Now, the keen among you will have noticed that I have changed the title of my paper from the original one that I gave to Shane during the summer. I had planned to talk to you about how the core technological aspects of my research might be applied to the study of the Classical world. Specifically, I had wanted to talk about applying the Linked Open Data method to Classical research and how this might prove of benefit to the field.

Defining Digital Humanities, a Reader

And while I will undoubtedly mention in the next 20 or so minutes concepts such as Linked Data, Open Data, Open Access, the Semantic Web and many of the other approaches to knowledge engagement that have occupied my last 3 years, these references will be secondary to my new primary focus.

Last week, I was thumbing through yet another compendium of Digital Humanities scholarship. This particular one, a collection of blog posts and conference papers, was compiled to act as a teaching aid for designers of Digital Humanities courses. Its primary stated objective was to tease out exactly what it means to be a Digital Humanist. It raised questions such as:

  1. How is being a Digital Humanist different to being a traditional humanist?
  2. How are the institutional frameworks that surround Digital Humanities different to those of the more established members of the academy?
  3. Are there analogies to be drawn between the birth of Digital Humanities and that of other newish subjects, such as computer science and the information sciences?
  4. Is it even of value or relevant to be attempting to delineate the activities of this community of researchers and practitioners (if indeed it can be recognised as one at all)?

Digital Humanities as viewed from within and without

While reading though this collection of pieces, some mercifully short (another privilege enjoyed within the Digital Humanities sphere), most highly polemic in the positions that they took, in reading through these, I decided that it would make a lot more sense if I was were to introduce to you today some of my own positions on this issue of intellectual self awareness because here I am, a member of the Digital Arts and Humanities PhD programme and also I exist as a member of the Department of Classics at Trinity and I have what might be termed a traditional training in Classical and Near Eastern archaeology and history. Who better I thought in my arrogance to speak about where Digital Humanities might sit within a wider framework of the humanities and indeed within the broader academic community?

Since reading the Terras volume, I began to consciously consider my own role in the department over the last 8 years. Was it significant that I was doing this Digital Humanities research (whatever exactly that might mean) in a department that was not explicitly devoted to the study of that field? How might I have contributed to the department and ultimately has my presence here been of any value to the institution or was it simply an administrative and bureaucratic curiosity?

Another thought struck me as well. I was having a chat with a colleague, who also works in the Digital Humanities field, and he said to me that he often encounters situations in his work in which he feels that he is not been taken seriously by his colleagues who work in the traditional disciplines. His impression is that they feel that his academic interests are in some way innately inferior to their own. His do not engage with real scholarship. Essentially, they see him as a bit of a snake oil salesman, dazzling their senses with slights of hand while hiding the fact that there is nothing of substance beneath.

His words rang true to me at a number of levels. As an archaeologist, who has consciously resisted the pull to become a specialist in any one category of material, geographic area or time period, I too had often encountered that same apparent distrust from other academics.

So to complete this rather rambling introduction, all of these various thoughts came together in my mind and solidified into the idea of using this paper as a way of introducing some of my own thoughts on what I believe it might mean to practice Digital Humanities and Classics. But I am also keen to use this forum as a way of hearing your views about what it is that I and others like me do and how if it all you think that Digital Humanities is impacting on the ways that you do your own research.

The origins of Digital Humanities

Traditionally the origins of Digital Humanities are found in the story of the Italian Jesuit priest, Father Roberto Busa. Busa had a problem in 1946. He needed to find a way of creating a concordance for the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, of whom he had based his doctoral research studies at the Pontifical Gregorian University of Rome. A concordance is a way of analysing all of the words occurring in a corpus of literature from the perspective of where they appear in the text and how they relate to other words. He knew instinctively that this project would be almost impossible to achieve using traditional human means alone and so he approached IBM, the computer company, with a proposal to build a machine that could read punch cards, each containing 80 characters, which would be populated with the Aquinas material, with the ultimate goal of producing a searchable corpus. It took them 30 years but in 1974 the Index Thomisticus appeared as had been originally envisaged and with it the birth of Digital Humanities.

The library of Alexandria

The Busa project was ground breaking but not perhaps in the way that you might first have thought. While it was the first time that a computational device had been used to tackle the problem of making sense of such a large quantity of cultural material, it was not the first example of the application of computational methods to the study of what we would now term the humanities. In fact, we can trace these sorts of analytical, statistical and quantitative approaches back to the establishment of the great libraries of the ancient world in the form of the taxonomies created by the administrators of these institutions in order to ensure that texts could be catalogued, stored and retrieved in a timely and rational manner (Wright 2008, 68–69).

Humanities Computing as tool of the humanist

As you move into the 1960s and 1970s the use of computers gradually seeps into the method of the humanist. Following the lead of Busa, most of these early efforts are focussed on the analysis of text and it is around now that the damaging model of Humanities Computing (as it came to be known) as an out-sourced service employed as a means to an end by the humanities sector took root. Essentially, what happened was that scholars who were interested in accessing the data-churning power of computers came to the view that they would use trained computer professionals to do this side of the work for them. This produced a separation between the work of the so-called ‘real’ humanities scholar on the one hand, that being the work of the intellect, ‘critical, creative and contemplative’ (Hofstadter 1966, 25), against the objective intelligence gathering efforts of the engineer.

The three waves of Digital Humanities

Berry presents the development of Digital Humanities as a sequence of often overlapping waves of activity (Berry 2012). The first wave saw the focus put upon the digitization of large-scale corpuses of material and the establishment of digital infrastructures. The second wave or Digital Humanities 2.0 is much more about the creation of tools that can be used to produce ‘born digital’ material in themselves as opposed to dealing with information that has been converted from its paper origin. A third and final wave fills in the postmodernist or critical gap by prescribing an environment in which the digital praxis and the forms that it creates becomes the object of study and not simply the process that it once was. One might rename this the meta or para wave of Digital Humanities.

Digital Humanities, theory and making things

Advocates of the DHs often disagree on a lot of matters relating to their field but one exception to this rule is the general agreement that the field is under-theorized and Berry’s proposed third wave of Digital Humanities can be seen in this light, as an effort to inject some critical rigor into the discipline. Geoffrey Rockwell says that the discipline is like any ‘craft field…[such as] carpentry or computer science’ (Rockwell 2013, 249), it is too intent on doing things to be concerned with self reflection. Rockwell does not say this in any pejorative way. His point is that Digital Humanities is a field that is primarily engaged in the ‘tacit knowledge of fabrication and its cultures’ and that this ‘methodological knowledge’ (McCarty 2005, 120), as Willard McCarty calls it, is as valuable as the abstract knowledge that comes with the self-consciously critical approach.

One can see a similar shift in theoretical focus within archaeology with the publishing of Ian Hodder’s latest book, Entanglement. In it, Hodder argues that archaeologists have neglected to address the subject in itself, as opposed to viewing the subject or the thing as a referent of cultural activity. McCarty and Rockwell appear to be advocating a similar realignment within Digital Humanities.

So let us consider this concept of doing. Is it true to say that you cannot be a true practitioner of Digital Humanities unless you are the creator of something? Stephen Ramsey would seem to think that this is indeed the case (Ramsey 2013a; Ramsey 2013b). He says that, as an organiser of a Digital Humanities graduate programme, he demands that all of his students emerge as creators and by creators he means that they will have the ability to write code, create maps as opposed to using them and to generate a whole myriad of other digital artefacts.

What I would like the Digital Humanities to be

Personally speaking, this model of the Digital Humanities scholar as builder has always appealed to me but until I read Ramsey I’m not sure that I would have consciously seen the distinction between what I do and what the traditional humanist does being based on an ability, need or want to become creator. Having said that, I have always had an opinion about what I believe the nature of Digital Humanities practice to be and this is perhaps a better way to approach the subject of Digital Humanities definition, as has been followed, for example, by the designers of the Humanities Computing MA programme at the University of Alberta (Terras, Nyhan, and Vanhoutte 2013, 6). They ask where do we want Digital Humanities to go and not where has it been in the past.

To code or not to code?

The first criterion that needs to be considered is whether or not you should need to be able to write code if you are to be a Digital Humanist? In order to answer this, I will first need to define exactly what it is that I mean by an ability to code. Here is a screenshot of some code that I wrote recently as part of my effort to translate the sum total of all of the information associated with the Priniatikos Pyrgos archaeological project into a form that allows it to exist as part of the Semantic Web, which is a fundamental component of my PhD research. This code is the physical, or more accurately, the digital manifestation of the reasoning that I have proposed to achieve this task. At one level, it can be viewed as a document in practical functionality. It is processual and, if you are an archaeologist, this can be a loaded term. If understood in this sense, it is an objective and focussed process, absent of all that we might term critical.

And yet, is this the only way that we can view the code writing method? Is code simple an unthinking, uncritical transparent tool in the hand of the knowledge creator? Let us compare code to the representation of ideas using text. I think, even the most deterministically minded among us today would agree that writing affords the actor a huge amount of scope in terms of expression. Code is undeniably a form of writing. It has its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary just as any language does. I would argue that it affords enormous scope in terms of the sorts of concepts that it can be used to express and that these expressions can be as complex as any that a traditional language can render.

As such, I would say that the Digital Humanities scholar should be able to code if they feel that it will benefit their work and if we accept that Digital Humanists should be involved in the process of creation and that code is one of the more flexible ways that currently exist to create new forms of knowledge, then it stands to reason that all Digital Humanities scholars should be able to code.

What institutional form should the Digital Humanities take?

McCarty posits a number of possible metaphors with which to model Digital Humanities (McCarty 2013). First, you can choose to view Digital Humanities as a member of a knowledge tree. It has grown out of previous practice and continues to feed from these roots and branches of knowledge. In turn, it can spawn off sub-genres of epistemological enterprise. He discards this particular metaphor because trees are, one, static and, two, overtly naturalised as an image and, therefore, not well suited to model the inherently cultural activity of creating knowledge divisions.

Seeing Digital Humanities as a domain or a property within a landscape of knowledge is also too prohibitive and tightly delineated; it denies the cross-fertilisation of knowledge that is vital to Digital Humanities.

He also finds fault with the centre and wild acre metaphors for other various reasons but finally settles upon seeing Digital Humanities as an archipelago of activity because, following Gombrich, it evokes a symbolism of exploration. It moves away from the finite boundaries rejected as inherent in the other metaphors towards a transience and uncertainty. Themes within the archipelago are separate but always within reach and potentially in contact with one another. Imagine an ancient Aegean of Digital Humanities projects allowing people and ideas to flow from one disciplinary landmass to another.

A network of knowledge activity

For the most part, I would be generally supportive of McCarty’s final archipelago model but I would make a few amendments. I would transform it into a more abstract network model. In a network graph all nodes are potentially inter-related, either permanently or transiently, but these interrelationships are optional and the proper workings of the entire system is not necessarily dependent on the workings of any one individual network node.

Digital Humanities, as a node or more accurately as an aspect of multiple nodes, existing within such a knowledge network, is more powerful and impactful but also more difficult to define and clearly demarcate, which anyone who has attempted to define the field will undoubtedly attest to.

Digital Humanities and the Classics

But what does this all mean in the Classics context? How is Classics integrated into such a knowledge network? And to what extent has Digital Humanities impacted on the ways in which Classics scholars interact with their subject matter?

Here are a number of examples of ways that I believe Digital Humanities is contributing to the Classical discourse in a non-superficial meaningful way. I mentioned before how it was perhaps more useful to talk in terms of aspiration for the Digital Humanities as opposed to defining its past and present and I believe that these particular projects show us what can be done in this space and as such they can be viewed as something of a model of best practice.


Nomisma.org is a resource for numismatists created chiefly by Ethan Gruber and Andrew Meadows of the American Numismatic Society. It is an Open Data collection of all the known Roman coin types and to a lesser extent ancient Greek coin types, which are much less canonical. The Nomisma resource has been used by other institutions such as our own UCD Classics Museum and the British Museum as the coin ontology and coin thesaurus on which the digital record of their coin collections are built.

Nomisma is a model Digital Humanities Classics project in the sense that it is not doing digital things simply because they are digital. The need for a coin typology preceded the coming of the digital age and is seen in the compiling of such tomes as the Roman Imperial Coins volume. Nomisma takes the principle of the RIC and expands upon it by using technologies such as Linked Data to create a resource that is more useful and extendible than the paper knowledge that preceded it.


Pleiades is another Classics-related Digital Humanities project that builds upon the power of Semantic Web technologies and arguably could not have existed within a pre-digital world. It tackles the very real problem of how placenames can change over time by providing a mechanism of associating ancient placenames with modern geospatial coordinates. So for example, if you searched for the placename ‘Athens’, you would discover that this is the modern English language translation of the name that is also known as Athenae in Latin as well as Αθ?να in Greek. You would also be able to discover the location of these various labels on a map. Obviously, the Athenian example is of limited use because we all know where Athens is. But let us imagine that you encounter an obscure and perhaps ambiguous placename in an ancient text. How in a pre-digital scenario might we have gone about learning more about this place, about its geographic and historical contexts?

The Body and Mask in Ancient Theatre Space

The Body and Mask in Ancient Theatre Space project was carried out by the King’s College London King’s Visualisation Lab and our own Hugh Denard was heavily involved. The project looked created 3D models of miniature clay mask artefacts that came from museums such as the Louvre and British Museum. These models were scaled up to fit a human actor, 3D printed and then used as prototypes on which to build mask replicas that were then used by Commedia dell’Arte actors. Performances of Classical works were then filmed against green-screen and superimposed onto models of the Theatre of Pompey in Rome and the Odeon in Pompeii.

The project was intensely interested in creation but throughout all of the stages of its workflow resided the interpretive method that transforms an exercise that is only interested in the end product to one that places the value on the overall praxis.

What is not a Digital Humanities project

This is by no means an exhaustive list. I chose most of these projects in a random enough way. Their selection was not, however, random in terms of the criteria of their being meaningful. What I mean by this is that I feel that there is a substantive difference between projects that use digital methods in a way that is exempted from the interpretive process and those that never looses sight of this. Building a flat unresponsive website to detail the outcomes of a humanities project is not Digital Humanities. While, it admittedly fulfils some function (public engagement et cetera) it should not be confused with the real Digital Humanities work that goes on at the core of the knowledge creation process.

Concluding remarks

So what exactly is a computer programmer doing in the Classics department? At an institutional level, I think that it makes a lot of sense to have Digital Humanists scattered about the humanities departments as opposed to being centralised within a dedicated Digital Humanities grouping. After all, the research carried out by the Digital Humanist is fundamentally based on work that has been on going in the humanities for centuries. What sense would it make to sever this link and start again?

Having said that, Digital Humanists should not be viewed as objective tools to be employed by the traditional humanist. This is a retrograde way of viewing the work that they do and should be avoided.

As regards comparing one set of practices against the other, there is no doubt that Digital Humanists ask different types of question to traditional humanists and we use both different approaches to answer them. For example, The Digital Humanist will often deal with quantities of data that traditional means would be incapable of coping with. Big Data is not something that I have really dealt with in this paper but it is central to my own work and to that of many Digital Humanists.

There is also the matter of creation, which I have referred to. Digital Humanists are creators but creation is not necessarily a requirement for the humanist.

Self-reflection in any discipline is of value. It allows one to construct an identity and this is a fundamental part of the knowledge creation process. Self-reflection is perhaps more important in a field such as Digital Humanities that is more concerned with the practical side of knowledge creation. It reminds its practitioners that intelligence gathering needs to be coupled with intellect if it is to be considered a true field of research.

It is my belief that Digital Humanities and the humanities exist within a symbiotic embrace, both frequenting the same physical and intellectual spaces, both profiting from the other and both needing the different skillsets that the other can provide.


Berry, David M. 2012. “Introduction: Understanding the Digital Humanities.” In Understanding Digital Humanities, edited by David M. Berry, 1–20. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire?; New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1966. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage.

McCarty, Willard. 2005. Humanities Computing. New York?; Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

———. 2013. “Tree, Turf, Centre, Archipelago - or Wild Acre? Metaphors and Stories for Humanities Computing.” In Defining Digital Humanities, edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, New edition edition, 97–118. Ashgate.

Ramsey, Stephen. 2013a. “Who’s in and Who’s Out?” In Defining Digital Humanities, edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, New edition edition, 239–42. Ashgate.

———. 2013b. “On Building.” In Defining Digital Humanities, edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, New edition edition, 243–46. Ashgate.

Rockwell, Geoffrey. 2013. “Inclusion in the Digital Humanities.” In Defining Digital Humanities, edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, New edition edition, 247–54. Ashgate.

Terras, Melissa, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte. 2013. “Introduction.” In Defining Digital Humanities, edited by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, New edition edition, 1–10. Ashgate.

Wright, Alex. 2008. Glut: Mastering Information through the Ages. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

[1] This talk was given as part of the Research Seminar series held in the Classics department at Trinity College Dublin on 3 December 2014.