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Technology offers a bridge between ancient, contemporary worlds, scholars say

Seminar explores how digitizing historical documents can lead to breakthroughs

Modern technology offers tools for preserving and piecing together clues to decipher ancient manuscripts, international scholars said during The Ohio State University’s 2022 Texts and Contexts Annual Seminar.

The event was held Oct. 28 at the Ohio Union and presented by the College of Arts and Sciences’ Center for Epigraphical and Palaeographical Studies.

The seminar honors a longtime supporter of manuscript studies at Ohio State and the namesake of the university’s new Virginia Brown Endowed Chair in Latin Palaeography, said Frank Coulson, Arts and Humanities Distinguished Professor of Classics.

Frank Coulson“All of our speakers, like many of us here in the room, have a personal connection to and memories of Virginia Brown, whose legacy we are commemorating today,” Coulson said.

Brown was a senior fellow at the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies in Toronto from 1970 to her death from pancreatic cancer in 2009. She mentored Ohio State scholars and others who study ancient texts around the world and was an innovator in fragmentology the study of the remaining fragments of manuscripts, said keynote speaker Anna Grotans.

“There are fragments of manuscripts around the world that need to be pieced together very carefully,” said Grotans, associate professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at Ohio State. “I can see Virginia smile that the era of fragmentology is approaching, and very quickly.”

Modern technology can facilitate the scanning of ancient texts into digitized formats, ensuring that the texts endure for generations to come and making them accessible for analysis by scholars in various parts of the world, Grotans said.

“Thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls were made available online in 2014,” thus enabling scholars who previously had little to no access to the ancient Hebrew artifacts to contribute to their study, she said.

Luisa Nardini, a University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music professor who describes herself as a Virginia Brown mentee, said the marriage of antiquity and today’s technology can help contemporary society learn from the past.  

“Digitization would certainly facilitate more discoveries,” Nardini said. “We could at least attempt at indexing (ancient manuscripts) for the campus database.”

Marjorie Curry Woods, University of Texas at Austin professor emerita, said providing wider access to ancient manuscripts will enable undergraduate students to understand the relevance of studying historical documents.  

“You can read the complex things if you approach them slowly and carefully and you read them more than once,” she said. “I think that there’s a way that we can be encouraged to use more of our complex material that we look at as scholars and we think students don’t have access to or couldn’t read … but they often can. And they feel like they’ve actually accomplished something.”

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