Since the earliest civilizations, people have recorded their thoughts and experiences through storytelling, art, philosophy and other forms of expression. Studying these works – collectively known as the humanities – helps us understand the past and ultimately ourselves.
Today’s humanities scholars are rediscovering the past through traditional ways, such as reexamining an ancient mummy case with a fresh perspective, as well as more modern techniques, which include the use of big data analysis or 3-D and X-ray models.
These stories represent some of the ways Stanford scholars are probing ancient questions through modern and traditional methods to figure out how and why history unfolded the way it did and what makes us human.
X-ray, 3-D modeling and genetics
New tools that have helped scientific discovery, such as X-ray imaging and genetic sequencing, are also serving humanities scholars in their pursuit of understanding the past.
For example, archaeologists are using 3-D modeling to scan ancient bones and create realistic online models that they can analyze without touching the fragile objects themselves.
“The ideal situation would be for each one of my students to take an entire skeleton home and study it,” said Krish Seetah, assistant professor of anthropology. “Before, I used photographs, and two dimensions versus three is a completely different situation.”
Big data and digital analysis
Humanities scholars at Stanford are routinely employing computer-assisted techniques, such as machine-learning algorithms, to help generate or answer questions about the past.
For example, a research team co-led by Stanford historian Londa Schiebinger used machine-learning to track how linguistic changes in gender and ethnic stereotypes correlated with major social movements and demographic shifts in the U.S. Census data.
“This type of research opens all kinds of doors to us,” Schiebinger said. “It provides a new level of evidence that allow humanities scholars to go after questions about the evolution of stereotypes and biases at a scale that has never been done before.”
Rediscovering the past
Sometimes discoveries about the past happen because someone new reexamined an object or a historical issue that many previous scholars have studied.
That fresh perspective is what helped Stanford student Ariela Algaze discover previously unknown writing on pieces of an ancient Egyptian mummy case that shattered during the 1906 earthquake.
“Being able to see and examine words written on a 2,000-year-old coffin was an exhilarating feeling,” Algaze said during the summer of 2018. “It’s like a voice calling out thousands of miles away.”
Inviting worldwide collaboration
In today’s interconnected world, humanities scholars can collaborate more broadly than was possible in the past.
The internet’s accessibility makes it easy for scholars to share their raw research and data with the rest of the world as soon as they get it. The idea is that if the data is out in the public, it can receive more critical scrutiny than one scholar could achieve.
For example, Stanford historian Tom Mullaney’s latest project documented the locations of thousands of gravesites that have been relocated in China over the past two decades. The focus of the project was to create an interactive website that displays the data in a way that makes it easy for a journalist or another researcher to examine.