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New technology brings researchers close to the people of ancient times

Digitisation and new technology now allow researchers to access the hidden layers in ancient texts so that it is actually possible to sense the emotions of the authors and what they were thinking.

By Bjarne Mouridsen, , 8/11/2022

- We want to take antiquity back to grassroots level. That’s where my heart is. Antiquity should not just be elitist, for it is part of our identity.

So says Associate Professor Aglae Pizzone from the Department of History at the University of Southern Denmark about her new project AntCom, which has just received an EU grant of approximately DKK 20 million.

She has created the project in collaboration with colleagues in Italy and Spain. One of the prerequisites for the project is digitalisation and the technological breakthroughs that have taken place in recent years.

By means of a Carlsberg donation, SDU has been able to invest in scanners that can document underlying layers in old books and manuscripts using so-called multi- and hyperspectral techniques.

Bringing the invisible to light

Using special filters that capture wavelengths, multispectral and hyperspectral imaging gives access to hidden or erased layers of writing that are invisible to the naked eye.

- Ancient documents and manuscripts have multiple layers and hide multiple languages, they contain more diversity than is immediately apparent. By analysing and working with the text, we can see, where there are rewrites and corrections – and not only that. We can also see physical traces from fingers and how the body is involved literally with blood, sweat and tears, says Aglae Pizzone

For example, wavelengths from the infrared region are useful for reading texts that have been covered with other material, such as a layer of paper. Wavelengths from the ultraviolet region can allow us to read texts that have been destroyed or erased, for instance, due to water damage. Spectroscopic methods can also help us understand and identify the composition of the ink, explains Aglae Pizzone.

Ancient documents and manuscripts contain multiple layers and multiple languages. We can also see the physical traces of fingers and how the body is involved, literally with blood, sweat and tears

Aglae Pizzone, Associate Professor

In this way, you get an insight into how the document came to be, what the author thought and felt. It’s almost like we were right there when it was being written. And it can give us completely new understandings of ancient people and society.

- Ancient cultural heritage is ubiquitous, and its cultural prestige has tended to be used to support all sorts of agendas, including nationalist agendas, she says and continues:

- But precisely its broader presence makes it a powerful transnational force that has given people who live in border areas and transitional cultures a better opportunity to relate to and identify with cultural heritage. It is this part of the story that we want to explore.

Cultural heritage researchers need to be educated

The aim of the project is to train PhD fellows in both the new technologies in cultural heritage research and in Citizen Humanities, through which universities throw their doors open and involve citizens, who in this way contribute to the research and participate in preserving and passing on old traditions and the classical cultural heritage.

- We want to educate a whole new generation of 10 highly educated cultural heritage researchers and have them exploit the potential of the digital transformation as well as meet the academic and societal challenges this entails, states Aglae Pizzone.

In other words, the project reaches out to ordinary citizens and bridges the gap between classical studies and modern technology and the STEM subjects.

Need for researchers who can use the technology

The use of scanners and other digital tools will become more and more widespread in the future. But this necessitates the ability of researchers and cultural mediators to use them.

- The technology is getting cheaper and cheaper and can therefore be more widely used, but there are too few people who are trained to be able to use it. I know of institutions that would like to buy a scanner but don’t, as they don’t have anyone who can operate it, explains Aglae Pizzone

It is this problem that the new cultural heritage researchers must help solve through their acquired competences.

Citizen Humanities

The 10 PhD students will be distributed across the four universities involved in the project: in Verona in northern Italy; Salento in southern Italy; Santiago de Compostela in Galicia; and SDU in Odense, which will house three of the PhD students, of which one will be affiliated with the technical and natural sciences area.

There are big differences in what the 10 fellows will be working on, but common to them all is that they will also work with Citizen Humanities.

- All 10 will, in addition to their own projects, work to involve the community in their work – that is, to get people to contribute to academic research and the preservation of cultural heritage by digging up treasures hidden in archives and digital environments or by sharing local knowledge. The benefits are mutual. Whereas researchers can work with more data and gain new insights, citizens gain new knowledge and new skills, says Aglae Pizzone.

Collaboration with the Danish National Archives

In Denmark, AntCom will collaborate with the Citizen Science Center at SDU, which will help organise the education programme for the associated PhD students. Furthermore, there will be a collaboration with the Danish National Archives, whose ancient texts and documents will be examined, analysed and digitised.

- We want to exploit the potential of the massive excavation of the Danish National Archives to start tracing a social history of an engagement with classics ‘from the bottom’ in Denmark. We want to document the uses of ancient cultural heritage that are not directly connected with pedagogical or ideological agendas, explains Aglae Pizzone.

Students in Verona will participate in a transcribing marathon, to uncover Virgil’s text, which was copied in a manuscript in the late 5th century and then destroyed

Aglae Pizzone, Associate Professor

In Verona, the goal is to provide easier access to the library’s collection by means of digitisation, thereby democratising, so to speak, cultural heritage and manuscript heritage.

- Students in Verona will participate in a ‘transcribathon’, a transcribing marathon, to uncover Virgil’s text, which was copied in a manuscript in the late 5th century and then destroyed between the 6th and 7th centuries. This work will provide an insight into the cross-regional circulation of texts and into the transformation of educational practices in a time of change. The palimpsests are strong proof that a ‘classic is not eternal’, and they provide a vivid picture of cultural transitions, Aglae Pizzone explains.

Oral traditions are cultural heritage

In the Spanish part of the network in Santiago de Compostela, the aim is to collect the oral cultural heritage that has been passed down through generations among Galician fishermen. This applies, for example, to the legend that the lighthouse in La Corona was built by Hercules. And similarly in Salento in southern Italy, where the Greek dialect Griko testifies to cultural exchange but that today is spoken by only a few thousand elderly people. In this case, students must be trained to interview and collect testimonies.


- I think the oral tradition in Spain will survive in the long run, but I am more doubtful about the Greek dialect in Italy, which might die out along with the elderly. This is precisely why it is important to document it. Otherwise, it’s the memories of a community that will disappear, stresses Aglae Pizzone

In this way, cultural heritage includes not only written sources and documents, but also spoken language, myths and narratives – elements that we do not traditionally associate with classical cultural heritage.

Not just for the elite

In so saying, the project also engages with a broader discussion of values that is taking place in society in general, as well as in classical and medieval studies – a discussion of ethnocentrism and cultural heterogeneity.

- Classical studies and classical education have traditionally been linked to particular classes and to social climbing. Today, there is an increased focus on decolonisation and the periphery and spreading antiquity to the community, so it is not just for the elite, concludes Aglae Pizzone.

About AntCom

  • AntCom – From antiquity to community: rethinking classical heritage through citizen humanities – will take place over the next four years, starting on 1 January 2023. 10 PhD students will begin in September 2023.
  • AntCom is supported with approximately DKK 20 million from the EU’s Horizon Europe framework programme. In addition to the universities of Odense, Verona, Salento and Santiago de Compostela, eight associate partners are also involved.
Meet the researcher

Aglae Pizzone is an associate professor at the Department of History and affiliated with the basic research centre Centre for Medieval Literature. She is a Byzantinist, educated in classical philology from the University of Florence and holds a PhD from the University of Milan, and has conducted research in France, USA, UK and Switzerland before joining SDU.


Editing was completed: 11.08.2022