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Classics in the digital age

One might think of classicists as the most tradition-bound of humanist scholars, but in fact they were the earliest and most enthusiastic adopters of computing and digital technology in the humanities. Today even classicists who do not work on digital projects use digital projects as tools every day.

One reason for this is the large, but defined corpus of classical texts at the field’s core: the earliest digital projects in classics were textual tools. Computers help to process and analyze large amounts of text, particularly when it is incomplete or fragmentary, as is often the case. As early as 1946, Roberto Busa began work on the Index Thomisticus, persuading IBM founder Thomas Watson to sponsor the project, which took 30 years to complete and was originally published in print. In the 70 years since, text-based digital projects like Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, the Bryn Mawr Classical Review, and ancient text collections like Oxford Scholarly Editions Online have become firmly embedded in the practices of classics scholars, and some, like The Perseus Digital Library, have pioneered the linking of text to images.

More recently classicists have started to use digital tools in studying art and material culture. Archaeologists use digital modeling, GIS, and 3D printing in their work. Archaeological reports are now quickly published and made discoverable through open-access digital publishing, while online databases for coins, inscriptions, and other small finds bring information to researchers’ fingertips. Now that advanced imaging techniques are available, researchers are using multi-spectral imaging to digitize textual artifacts such as the Herculaneum papyri, make readable texts that cannot be read by traditional mechanical means.

Ancient historians are also using digital technologies in analyzing and virtually re-creating physical space. Digital mapping helps scholars study physical change and population distributions helps keep track of ancient places. Digitization has also helped other scholars re-create ancient maps, such as the Severan Marble Plan of Rome, an ancient groundplan of every architectural feature in ancient Rome, or even to map the landscape of ancient publications onto a physical map of ancient Pompeii. More recent technological advances have allowed classics scholars to even use virtual reality to experience and experiment with whole ancient environments.

Joining these and many other digital tools available to the student and scholar of the ancient world is the new Oxford Classical Dictionary, which this year has made the transition from a static print-first publication to a dynamic digital resource that is poised to grow and evolve with the field.

Featured image credit: MacBook Pro, by Remko Van Dokkum CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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