The study of the past has traditionally focused upon the “era” – swaths of human history and experience, packaged together and labeled with a digestible phrase. And when it comes that our era will be entered in the annals, there is little doubt that we shall have lived in the “Digital Age.” So, what role does the digital have in our study of the past? Is the digital always superior to the material/physical? What are the diverse faces of the digital humanities?
The above questions were central to discussions held during the conference “Future for the Past”, at the Swedish Institute in Athens from February 13 to 15, 2018, with the support of the Swedish Research Foundation for the Humanities and Social Sciences (initiation grant), Humlab at Umeå University, the Centre for Digital Humanities and the Centre for Critical Heritage Studies at Gothenburg. The two and half day conference, organized primarily by Anna Foka (Associate Senior Lecturer at Humlab, Umeå University, Sweden) assisted by Athens based archaeologists Amalia Katerelou (Directorate of the National Archive of Monuments – DEAM) and Zeta Xekalaki (social media manager, Archaeology & Arts), brought together leading scholars from around the world to discuss issues at the forefront of the digital humanities.
The first day of the conference focused on digital mapping. The morning section focused on the challenges for digital mapping presented by specific data set type, from data collected via specific narratives such as testimonies of the cult of saints in medieval Sweden (Sara Ellis Nilsson, Malmö University) to oral histories from the Greek diaspora (Katherine Kelaidis, DePaul University/National Hellenic Museum) to an exploration of the challenges presented by larger (though frequently more traditional) data sources (Johan Åhlfeldt, University of Lund/Anna Foka, University of Umeå and Celena Allen, CESTA, Stanford). The afternoon session took a methodological focus, exploring how data (once identified and organized) might be most effectively presented. Digital annotation (Elton Barker, Open University), interactive GIS and mixed media (Cecilia Lindhé, University of Gothenburg) and text mapping (Stuart Dunn, Kings College London) were all explored. The outcome was a fruitful discussion on the potential and limitations of digital technology with respect to the multifunctional presentation of and access to complex data.
The second day of the conference explored digital applications for archaeological fieldwork and cultural heritage. During the morning session, this included an exploration of the place of digital modeling in archaeological research (Nicolo Dell’Unto, Lund University) and the ways that new digital modeling methods memory traditional analog modeling (Giacomo Landeschi, Lund University). Environmental archaeology was the subject of the second-morning session with papers on digital techniques for the analysis of both geological (Claudia Sciuto, University of Umeå) and biological (Phil Buckland, University of Umeå) evidence. The afternoon session of the second day began with our discussion of how digital media influences the communication of the humanities to the general public, with a presentation on the digital marketing of an archaeological publication targeted at non-specialists (Zeta Xekalaki, Archeology & Arts). The discussion turned to the development of a new scholar field, the historical game studies, and the engagement of game players with history (Adam Chapman, University of Gothenburg). The final session of the second day was dedicated to the use of digital tools for the representation of rock art (Oscar Ivarsson, University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology – Johan Ling, University of Gothenburg – Niclas Hagen, University of Gothenburg), historical landscapes (Eleni Gadolou, Institute of Historical Research – National Hellenic Research Foundation) and archaeological heritage (Evangelos Kyriakidis, University of Kent).
On the third day, the conference concluded with an exploration of the wider ways in which digital technology can be leveraged in order to raise the visibility of history and historical topics among the general public, including how the public engages within history-themed films, television, and video games (Sian Beavers, the Open University, UK). In this aspect, digital technology could assist further in the history education of the public (Thomas Nygren, Uppsala University) and offer new understanding to the perception of culture through representations (Jonathan Westin, University of Gothenburg).
These sessions were united by a desire to highlight the use of cutting-edge digital technology in the humanities and to bring the fruits of those advances to the public at large while opening the way for future conferences.