You and I walk through a city street, sweating in the dry heat, the billowing colorful clothes our protection against gusts of oddly piercing cold that bring in musty aroma of cinnamon bark and ginger infusions. It gets a little overpowering but we gawp at the reams / sheets of the off-white, translucent, softest material we have ever seen flowing from the blocky pillars of the funduks / fondacos / residential loggias / hospices / caravanserais / khans or what our descendents would know as resthouse inns. The merchant is dealing his wares and we hear him talk about the magical sheep-like animal that gave the secret cloth its smoothness. The man he is talking to dismisses him; he ascertains the material is spun on trees, from wondrous fruits. The merchant genially tells the belligerent man that in fact, the cinnamon barks are in fact from such twills of trees and nutmeg-. Here he shoves a handful of spherical nuts – these were actually from a blooming rose tree. How else would it have such a distinct smell? But the silk cloth – make no mistake – it is from an animal. He heard it was so from the very mouth of a smart, royal courtier he had chanced upon in his travels from the nearby town. That man was a literary fiend, he knew many more languages than the merchant himself, so of course, we should all take his word for it. You look at me flummoxed and confused, “Jaj, how are we understanding what these people are saying?”
I visited along with my parents to every single sacred surviving theertha (temple stop) this side of the Nilgiri range. Countless summer holidays spent in the heat of historic places of worship like Beluru, Halebedu, Shravanabelagola, Tirupathi, Hampi, etc. compounded and melted into a yearning for an understanding of a world mutilated, manipulated, to fit with particular political power-plays.
Inconsistencies in my identity meant I had to grapple with the conflict arising from the social structure around me and how else to amalgamate these contradictions into my being if not by de-tangling our collective history; the star stuff, the ancestral bones, “repurposed molecules” of a world within our own, to paraphrase Anirudh Kanisetti from the Echoes podcast.
Fast forward fifteen years later, a weary Computer Science Engineer discovered the uncharted possibilities of another contradictory field, Digital Humanities. Here I could be a pioneer of my own style, feeding my hubris; but also blending multiple nested niches together. Digital Humanities is a perfect Venn diagram of tech tools applied to the study of humanities and social sciences, but Global South-specific DH goes another level deeper within the niche. The field is exciting in just the way I find making obscure references fun. It seems remarkable that I get to be a part of the hand creating a thread in the lasting backstory narrative of my world and I feel duty-bound to give it all my best.
Understandably, I was overwhelmed by the possibilities even as I stepped into my classrooms in my first semester of pursuing masters in Computational Sciences. I reached out to a fellow classmate to rely on their expertise to pick a certainly fascinating topic in their chosen field of doctoral studies – Behavioral Neuroscience. We worked tirelessly on the effect of incentive motivation that the personality trait, extraversion with an agent-based model based on Depue and Collins’ (1999) influential paper. On piecing together a 6,000 word possible research paper for the CSS 600: Introduction to Computational Social Sciences class, I felt more confident of my own abilities in working on a large-scale project of my own in my second semester.
I took up CSS 610: Agent-based Modelling Simulation cross-listed as ECON 895: Computational Economics for the syllabus listing an entire week’s focus on Agent-based Anthropology and Archaeology, as well as the professor in charge being Dr. Robert Axtell, the co-creator of the Sugarscape model, Artificial Anasazi / Ancient Pueblo civilization ABM, and so many more. The other courses were CSI 703: Statistical Scientific Visualization and STAT515: Visualizing for Analytics. Very conducive to Digital Humanities and Data Journalism, both of them. The stage was set for the perfect project to work amongst all the three courses. But what was it to be?
It had to be something non-Eurocentric, I decided as I sat through one of the courses I sampled, HIST 697: Creating New History Media with Computational History instructed by Dr. Lincoln Mullen, an ineffably kind professor. He was also one of the faculty directors at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, with whom I had volunteered as an Editor-in-Large for their PressForward project, Digital Humanities Now so of course I had effusively gushed about my enthusiasm for Digital Humanities. I had already come across so many brilliant digital US westward expansion, Mapping Trans-Atlantic slave trade and Emancipation, Civil war, French Revolution, Mapping the Republic of Letters, and such projects.
I wanted – needed – to see the world closer home mapped for its literature, history, sociology; entire civilizations that wouldn’t have a technical analysis footprint otherwise. The loss seems immeasurable, even now. Apart from that, a relevance beyond my immediate surroundings would be nice. It had to be relatively non-controversial so that I could go forth unimpeded for my first ever large scale research topic.
Absolutely, unconditionally, the topic for my semester-end projects had to be something I would invest my whole self and nothing short of a world-and-reality-altering cataclysm could reduce my enthusiasm for it. Turns out, not even COVID-19 could dampen how devoted I became to the forthcoming topic. Indeed, in an attempt to build a bubble against the outside world, I threw all of myself into my efforts even more so. A conversation with the endlessly knowledgeable History Subject Librarian of George Mason university Dr. George Oberle, finally sprouted the seed of the idea I had from communicating my frustrations about the lack of a wealth of Global South primary sources to my supervisors at Digital Scholarship Center Lab. This was a sore point ever since I attended the Digital Humanities Winter School conducted by IASE Pune University. Anyway, I had an idea, as Dr. Oberle spoke of his interest in knowledge dissemination and interrogated my interest in Alexander Hamilton’s prolific but problematic works (I have, since, decided I want to focus entirely on South Indian literature too. I know the primary sources and data availability, robustness, and interest will be… in a dismally frustrating state, but will that stop me, is the question.) I had noted down in my scratchpad –
“Historical documents – Look for newspaper articles around Indian history, British Colonialism, News on Asia at the time, Pre Colonial, Mughal? Ashoka? Literary sources
OR!!! How information / knowledge transactions occurred across the Silk Roads.
Knowledge / learning societies dissemination across Indus.”– Jajwalya’s brainstorming process
Dr. Crooks, during CSS 600, told us to take our favourite theory, and put it to the test – an Agent-based Model Simulation test. I wanted to take my world and watch it come alive. I wanted to try predictive history – in a way. Re-do the world from what we know, to recreate what had happened. It is a couple of steps below actual Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality exhibits in museums, à la The Venice Time Machine in that we physically are not experiencing the simulation, but the ABM I believe, lends itself to better analysis of the question – What happened in our past? Maybe even find out just how closely graphed the cycles of history repeating itself really are, as is the oft-repeated quote.
The idea grew with my fascination with maps. I scrolled past hundreds, thousands of fictional, historical, hand-drawn, painted, inaccurate, hyper-realistic, or GIS (Geographic Information Systems) styled maps.
Before long, I consulted my professors to pre-approve the topic and approached the Center of Social Complexity’s faculty members to chat about what I had in mind. Time’s tectonic plates were shifting too soon and I had 6 weeks to work on 2 major semester-end projects with the same overarching theme, with a looming deadline to work on the codes, a short pitch video, a longer process video, 2 research papers, and a couple of presentations.
(And it went like -)
Historical Economic Redistribution of Marketplaces with Silk & Spices (HERMESS)
Where to begin with working on a Digital Humanities project?
I made the mistake of becoming heavily invested in the topic (reading up) even before I was sure of its plausibility for a semester-end project. I should have run a preliminary checklist before picking a name I knew I would become so attached to. Naming a trade simulation and visualization after the Greek God of trade, wealth, luck, fertility, animal husbandry, sleep, language, thieves, and travel feels perfectly on-brand, and I was overjoyed at arriving to this particular acronym. Now I wish I found a Central Asian or East Asian god or goddess of trade or traveling that I could name the project after, but ah well. HERMESS fits, so I’ll make do.
I could visualize an ancient silk route only if it were documented, and very well at that. The required digital secondary sources are the most important starting point for every Digital Humanities, and for that matter, every Data Science project. It is also vital to know the datasets properties.
- Availability – Does data exist in a clean processed form? If not, how can I gather data?
- Robustness – How complete is the data? Is it missing values to the point of not giving much insight?
- Accessibility – Is the data in a format you can work with? If not, can you convert it to a text file like a .CSV or .XLSX?
- Reliability – Where was the data gathered from? What was the primary source? Is it fundamentally authentic and well-reviewed?
There are many sources to look for for datasets, but I struck gold by asking for help from my Digital Scholarship supervisor and Director of the Data Services Center, Wendy Mann. She sent me a list of possible data sources. Thank you!
Much later, just before I was going to submit my work, I found a Black Death plague dataset. It was too late to try and incorporate that into my Silk Road trade in China, Asia, and Afro-Eurasia dashboard. More to look forward to working on, so you will not catch me complaining. Too much.
Depending on your use case, look for datasets on Kaggle, Google Dataset Search Engine, and official government websites in the case of Open Data. Reaching out to researchers all over the world, working on your specific interest area is a good way to get to know more people in the field while at it. When all else fails, you scrape the web. Ethically, carefully, and keeping your server resources in mind.
Looking for projects with similar intent was an exercise in patience and envy, honestly. I wanted my project to be out there in the void, and looking as pretty and helpful already. Similar to a writer who wishes her idea into the existence of a book.
- The Harvard WorldMap Project: The Silk Road
- Developed by the Center for Geographic Analysis at Harvard University, the WorldMap uses best available contemporary and historical public data to visualize spatial routes with ESRI’s GIS map layers.
- Project MERCURY- SIMREC
- We were to present an Agent-based model or a book on related topics in CSS610, and I can draw a direct link to Project MERCURY-SIMREC, my topic of choice to the Silk route simulation idea. The name too – HERMESS is short for Historical Economic Redistribution of Marketplaces with Eurasian Spices & Silk just as Project MERCURY (after the Roman god of commerce) is an acronym for Market Economy and Roman Ceramics Redistribution model. It is an Archaeological ABM led by Dr Tom Brughmans funded by Leverhulme Trust.
- Artificial Anasazi / Ancient Pueblo People / Black Mesa Period Long House Valley Agent-based Model
- Dr. Robert Axtell’s and Dr. Joshua Epstein’s agent-based model in association Santa Fe Institute’s George Gumerman examines the prehistoric population dynamics of humans in a certain region based on anthropological data from archaeological excavations by the Arizona State University. This model is the reason I picked up the CSS 610 course and have been completely in awe of my luck to have gotten Dr. Axtell as an instructor this semester.
- Slave Voyages data
- Emory University’s Digital Scholarship Center created a digital memorial documenting, analyzing, and visualizing the Trans-Atlantic as well as Intra-American enslaved trading. The database, data visualization, summary statistics, time lapse, timeline, maps, and beautiful user interface was a work that originated in 2009, and I absolutely wanted to recreate the effect in my own Silk Road trade visualization and simulation.
Google Scholar, academic journals within the field, university library guides, and Digital Humanities Now, blogs are all helpful secondary sources. The key here is to use the right keywords. Use Google Ngram Viewer, or Hathi Trust enabled Bookworm to find the most popular phrases. Additionally, here’s a tip from my marketing days – Keyword Everywhere (Chrome | Safari) or Keyword surfer extension tool. (Thanks Sufia!)
Find a bunch of articles or papers or blogs or books you find interesting but cannot read right away? Zotero them with the extension to your desktop to keep track of the soon to be gazillion-vortex-rabbit hole-time munching reading material you have just made for yourself.
An in-depth blog post on using Google Scholar, Zotero, and MS Word in historical research workflow: Historical Research Guide by Harvard’s Department of the History of Science PhD candidate, Brad Bolman.
The anecdote at the beginning of this blog post is based on material from the book Portugal and the European spice trade, 1480-1580:
“With the Renaissance passion for allegorical personification, a standard iconographic representation of Asia was of a richly adorned woman, sitting on an elephant holding twigs of clove and nutmeg (see Figure 2). Beyond this, there was a fairly widespread knowledge across Europe of what the products looked like in dried form, broken up as dried seeds, bark, leaves and roots, and what kind of prices they commended on the European market. This latter was the kind of information set dow in trading compedia ad handbooks of the period. The plats’ origins, habitat and methods of cultivation, by contrast, were subjects of considerable mystery, and indeed were by and large ignored apart from the patchy and spurious information set down by the Ancients, particularly Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, and a few scattered reports. Of these, Marco Polo’s Asia went further than any previous text in pinpointing the provenance of the valuable spices of commerce.
Halikowski Smith, Stefan
Peter Plancius, Orbis terrarum typus de integro multis in locis emendatus, (1594), cat. 145.
My next post will be on me figuring out the actual project development so more such tangents coming right up!
The process of coming up with an idea, that the researcher feels for so intensely – enough to dive deep and work on it for an extended period of time – has baffled me for a long time. Here I caught that elusive thread and held on.
Axtell RL, Epstein JM, Dean JS, et al. (2002) Population growth and collapse in a multiagent model of the Kayenta Anasazi in Long House Valley. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 99 Suppl 3:7275-7279.
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EdComm_Bowden. (2014). Map of the historic Silk Road. Retrieved from https://www.arcgis.com/home/item.html?id=55399ae83b1f43e1a9d3d7f5e946da23
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Halikowski Smith S. (2001). Portugal and the European spice trade, 1480-1580, Florence : European University Institute, EUI PhD theses, Department of History and Civilization
Retrieved from Cadmus, European University Institute Research Repository, at: http://hdl.handle.net/1814/5828
Kanisetti, A., (2019) A Chinese Monk in Ancient India. Echoes of India. IVM Podcasts. Retrieved from https://ivmpodcasts.com/echoes-of-india-a-history-podcast-episode-list/2019/4/24/s02-e05-a-chinese-monk-in-ancient-india
Li, J., Wilensky, U. (2009). NetLogo Sugarscape 3 Wealth Distribution model. http://ccl.northwestern.edu/netlogo/models/Sugarscape3WealthDistribution. Center for Connected Learning and Computer-Based Modeling, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL.
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Silkroutes.net. (2017) MAPS & ATLAS – SILK ROAD TRADE ROUTES MAP. Retrieved from http://www.silkroutes.net/orient/mapssilkroutestrade.htm