Tom Beasley and Sune Swart (Bucknell University)
Visualizing Networks in the Ancient Mediterranean (VNAM) is a web-based application for creating dynamic visualizations of political, economic and religious networks in antiquity, and displaying the primary evidence (whether literary, inscriptional or material) on which those visualizations are based.
Developed over the course of two summers by an undergraduate Computer Science major and a member of the Classics faculty at Bucknell, VNAM is a collaborative endeavor in both its creation and its applications.
VNAM has taught its creators how the process of designing a digital humanities project confronts one with authentic methodological problems in both the humanities and computer science. Consider, for example, a question that arose when we were creating the functionality to store and display ancient inscriptions: what is the evidential value of a treaty that purports to belong to the 5th century BCE, but which most scholars believe to be a 4th century forgery? Under what circumstances should VNAM display it, and how should its date be presented? To answer these and similar questions we had not only to approach them with the disciplinary tools of classics, but also to craft data structures and code that would realize our solutions. In this way VNAM turned out to be more interdisciplinary than we had anticipated, demonstrating how computer science can offer a productive means for learning about the discipline of classics, and vice versa.
VNAM also crosses boundaries in its applications. Designed to be both a resource for scholars and a pedagogical tool, it offers students the opportunity to make research contributions that both experienced scholars and other students will use. In the summer of 2016 we worked towards this goal by designing a contributor’s page. Now the project’s classroom utility extends beyond students’ ability to overlay different visualizations so as to, e.g., compare Apollo’s travels in the Homeric Hymn to Apollo to a map of temples to Apollo. Now, in addition to using VNAM, students in Bucknell’s fall 2016 Classical Mythology course will be adding to it. By being invited to generate their own metadata for mythical narratives and their real-world referents, student will have the opportunity to confront issues similar to those with which we ourselves dealt. By blurring the lines between learning and scholarship in this way, VNAM aims to turn even novice learners’ classroom experience into an authentic encounter with real problems and real research in classics.
Thomas Beasley is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies at Bucknell. His digital interests include data visualization, text analysis and digital game design.