Review of Virtual Representations of the Past [Book]

Reviewed by Ann Gow (September 2009)

Acting Director, Humanities Advanced Technology and Information Institute, University of Glasgow, G12 8QQ. Email:

Cite this as: Gow, A. 2009 Review of Virtual Representations of the Past[Book], Internet Archaeology 26.

Greengrass, M. and Hughes, L. 2008 (eds) Virtual Representations of the Past. Ashgate. Price: £64. Online price: £54. Available:

This notable book in the series Digital Research in the Arts and Humanities, gathers a set of papers from an Expert Seminar run by the AHRC ICT Methods Network in 2006. These experts shared an agenda of using advanced ICT methods to answer their research questions in the general area of the past. What is evident is that the willingness of these experts to share methods, tools and philosophies has resulted in this excellent work that will be of great interest not only to historians and archaeologists, but to anyone teaching and researching in the area of digital humanities.

There are a myriad number of questions that spring to the mind of the typical academic when faced with three such intriguing words as virtual, representation and past. Fortunately for scholars working in the digital humanities arena, they mean methods, tools and technologies to discover and raise research questions. The essays collated in this volume are multidisciplinary in nature yet detailed in discussion. They are eminently readable and while ranging over a wide landscape, they find a common ground in provoking critical thought about the uses of such technologies. They give thought to understanding how the technologies expand the research questions, yet do not assume this is all that is required. They address some of the wider questions of sustainability, funding and expertise. This is a volume that so many humanities disciplines will find useful and should find its way into the canon of digital humanities teaching.

This is a book that showcases expert understanding in diverse but connected ways. Each chapter focuses on an aspect of virtual representation of the past. What is particularly interesting is that the impact of digital technologies on research methods and the archives themselves raise digital and philosophical challenges.

The range of the papers is wide and deep, with contrasts in style and approach as well as topic. Philosophy, methodologies, and technologies are all discussed from different aspects, depending on the author. From the detail of an individual clerk's handwriting or style to analyse and reference the Peasants' Revolt to the large-scale methods of grid technology - these are the virtual representations of the past. This book sweeps across many disciplines and covers the past in a very wide sense, and yet focuses on methods, theories and the technologies that these researchers are developing in their specialised areas. Yet these papers reveal that the underlying 'digital' in fact creates a cross-disciplinary approach to questions of the past. They delve and construct analyses in ways that are not only strikingly similar but are also new and unique.

The chapters are divided into four parts, 'The Virtual Representation of Text', 'Virtual Histories and Pre-Histories: Finding Meanings', 'The Virtual Representation of Place and Time' and 'The Virtual Representation of Historical Objects and Events' which link apparent themes in the essays. These cover the (perhaps) more traditional representation of text; through the computational and philosophical aspects of data mining, data analysis and even the structure and content of the archives themselves; the wide range of arguments on the representation of space and time itself; through to representation of events and objects. These divisions allow the reader to explore those aspects of 'the past' that are relevant to their research but they would be encouraged to read all the essays to appreciate in full the remarkable work being done.

Delving into the essays in more detail we find topics ranging from the smallest piece of evidence gathered using digital technologies that reveal details of a document that in turn reveal historical evidence not apparent with traditional methods. Prescott's essay on 'The imaging of historical documents' (the Peasants' Revolt) is a delight to read, not only for scholars specialising in that historical era or indeed using similar methods to answer different questions, but also for digital humanities scholars and students to recognise the import of technology on the smallest but, nevertheless, very meaningful aspect of a document. Many of the essays discuss 'traditional' uses of technology on historical documents, referring like Twycross and Spaeth to using technology not simply to gain digital representation but to exploit the full impact of document analysis. They explore the structure of historical texts, from the visual aspects to the opportunities to view source both as a text and as a set of diverse data (figures, etc.) through use of encoding.

The second part explores the more philosophical and computational themes. A very engaging chapter is Hitchcock's approach to the impact that technology has on the archives themselves, arguing that technology challenges the archivist's construction of the past and breaks the structures leading the historians' interpretation. Technology offers multiple layers that were not previously evident within archives. He argues convincingly for a new order amongst 'old dust'. He is projecting the Google generation and the impact of access and expectation of this access to information to the structures and traditional research methods of historians.

The sweeping landscapes of Part Three, on representing space and time, are depicted with 4-D representation. Gaffney's landscapes show the impact that large datasets, more normally expected in the sciences, have not only on research methods but on re-creating the past in the full glory of four dimensions. He argues a tardis effect as such. He uses these methods and datasets to set the agenda for large-scale data analysis in the arts. Following on, Cripps homes in on 'born digital' tools for archaeologists, arguing that skill sets of scholars need to be raised to avoid large scale retro-conversion. Thaller, on the other hand, grapples with the complexities of representing time itself.

Part Four, which addresses objects and events, has Beachem introduce us to 'paradata', the intellectual capital generated through research, in his case, poetic and theatrical. Themes common to many essays across the book are discussed here; standards, sustainability, access and documentation. Beachem argues for the discovery of new ways to use the research, the paradata made evident by using technology to find, in its turn, new research questions and results. We have an excellent example of the cross-disciplinary aspects of these research methods, in the discussion of the creation of a corpora of artefacts, borrowing from the established methodology of linguistic computing; this is a corpora and not merely an inventory.

What connects these essays, apart from their shared original platform of the seminar, is the cross- and inter-disciplinary approaches to research methods, sharing tools and inter-operability. There is a sophisticated view of practice, with mature reflection on the past 20-25 years of creativity and exploration. These authors are freely using methods established in other disciplines as well as their own to address humanities research questions.

Across the essays and editorials, there are discussions of national structures that many of these authors used to address crucial issues of standards, sustainability, access and documentation. There is a little debate about what will emerge to ensure the longevity of the research that is being created here, but as this seminar was not designed to address this directly, much of the discussion about these crucial areas is not raised. There is a silence around the area of funding, crucial to all work. While one would not expect the essays to address this in detail, it is only directly discussed in the editorial chapters. It would be interesting if the authors could consider if, how and why they may think to influence policy that will shape future funding; as well as how to repurpose traditional research to unlock monies not available to all. Such is the interdisciplinary nature of this research that there are clearly opportunities made accessible due to this very aspect of the research and the methods. It is a point that Hughes addresses directly and this review can see the merits of using such an excellent collection of essays to raise such important issues.

These are sophisticated communities of scholars (the past is only one aspect that digital humanities research is addressing and the titles in the series are to be recommended and awaited). While they are identifiable in subject area, these are not traditional and create communities of practice and methods that are not solely driven by subject area.

What way lies the future for these scholars of the past? There is no one way, but a mature debate should take place about how to sustain the work in future (creation and 'paradata') as well as creating and strengthening the communities (both traditional subject base as well as cross-discipline). This reviewer eagerly anticipates the next chapters.

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