Digital content of the ancient world

Acadia professor pivots to focuses on digital humanities during pandemic




SaltWire Network


An Acadia University history professor pivoted to the digital humanities when COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented her from continuing the archeological research she is so passionate about. Dr. Chelsea Gardner, an archeologist and an associate professor of ancient history, has focused her research primarily on the history, archeology and identity of the inhabitants of the ancient Mani Peninsula in Laconia, Greece. “The people who lived there in antiquity didn't write down their own history; we don't have a lot about them that survived in writing. But we can still look at the archelogy, the landscape and the sites where they lived to figure out how they lived and who they were,” Gardner said. “(People) want to know about them because so much of our modern world was modelled after these people, particularly in Athens. Philosophy, democracy, art, architecture and politics, all of these different aspects of Greek antiquity, really have an impact on how we live our lives today.” Gardner usually teaches at Acadia September through April before spending four to six weeks in Greece during the summer field research season. “It is a stunningly beautiful place to work. I feel fortunate every day I get to spend in Greece next to the Mediterranean.” But Gardner and her team were forced to cancel plans to return to southern Greece in the early days of the pandemic. “In March 2020, as the world was shutting down, it looked increasingly like we were not going to be getting into the field to do our archeological fieldwork in Greece that year,” Gardner said. “Everything that I have built in my career up to this point depends on me being in Greece and suddenly I can't go to Greece. So, what am I supposed to do?” The answer was to pivot to use her experience in digital humanities. Gardner had been involved in web-based projects such as cataloguing artifacts and digitizing 3-D models of artifacts to teach students to become more digitally literate in terms of the academic disciplines known as the humanities. “It was a natural thing for me to jump from going into the field to doing something digital,” she said. Gardner, who was teaching Greek art and architecture at Acadia in the fall of 2020, recognized she and her colleagues would need to develop new methods and resources for teaching courses online. “Suddenly, all of these university instructors across North America and the world are going to be teaching online in the fall. And we had no training in how to teach online. This was all new to so many of us. So, we are going to rely more on digital resources.” Gardner decided to focus her attention on creating and developing resources for teaching online that anybody could use. The idea was born for the Peopling the Past project. It includes the podcast of the same name, which aims to lift the voices of “Real people in the ancient world and the real people who study them.” Each episode features experts who describe their research on diverse topics. Gardner said the goal was to create resources that were free and of interest to a general audience, to undergrads and to anybody who wanted to listen. But people can also use them if they are teaching a Greek art and archeology class. Gardner collaborated with friends and former classmates from the University of British Columbia whose research had also been stalled by pandemic restrictions to develop digital content such as open-access textbooks, blog posts, short videos, and the podcast. According to Gardner, there have been 17,500 downloads of the 24-podcast episodes. “This all started because of the pandemic. This project, Peopling the Past, and the podcast would not exist without the pandemic,” Gardner said. “The idea specifically came from wondering how I transfer restless energy from not being able to go into the field,” she said. “This is a way to get exciting new research about real people in the ancient world out to everyone who wants to access it.” Gardner said the larger project and the podcast deal with various topics, including climate change, slavery, women and childbirth and how familial relations were experienced in marital or social situations that were not always equal. “People care about this because these real people who lived in antiquity can tell us more about who we are today and everyone can find something in the podcast, in our video clips or in the blog post about issues that are relevant to them today,” she said. Lauren Millett is an undergrad history major. She joined the podcast project a year ago as a research assistant and audio editor. Gardner and the other co-hosts did the editing themselves before that. Millett supports providing open access resources such as the podcast because all anyone needs is an internet connection to download an episode. “This project really allows people to connect with the past on a personal level,” Millett said. “It is a valuable way to present the past to a broader audience. I think it's going to make history a more accessible field to a lot of people.” Given the opportunity, Millet said she would do it as a job. “It's been one of the most rewarding things I have gotten a chance to do with my time at Acadia.” Dr. David Duke, chair of the Department of History and Classics at Acadia, said Gardner is part of the new generation of archeologists who are using social media and communications technology to expand their audience and make what used to be an esoteric discipline into something that everybody can appreciate and get a handle on. “Younger scholars like Dr. Gardner were already, before the pandemic hit, incredibly adept at using social media. That aptitude towards using social media to publicize what they do to engage a wider group of people was tailormade to when the lockdowns happened,” Duke said. “Even though we were locked down physically, we still had the ability to connect electronically.” Gardner said the third season of the Peopling the Past podcast will focus on women in the ancient Mediterranean. And while she is excited about the prospects of finally returning to the archeological fieldwork near the shores of the Mediterranean in May 2022, Gardner is also looking forward to the continued growth of the Peopling the Past project. “We want this to be a significant presence that exists when people think about content for the ancient world that's free and that they enjoy. This is something that will be there for the long haul.”