The DiGA Kickoff Workshop: a platform for interdisciplinary dialogue looking at the future

On the 7th and 8th of February 2022 the DiGA Team hosted on Zoom their DiGA Kickoff Workshop, an event aimed at establishing and consolidating dialogue among scholars variously engaged in South Asian studies and Digital Humanities. Drawing sharp borders between disciplines and fields of research, especially in such an interdisciplinary context, negatively affects the progress of knowledge, this is why we invited speakers from various fields, from Gandharan studies, Indology and philology, Buddhist studies, to Central Asian studies.

The DiGA Kickoff Workshop fell exactly one week after the first anniversary of the project. Certainly, this workshop has also been an important occasion for a public debut of our project, which was indeed introduced in the opening with a team presentation on our resolutions, ongoing work and objectives. Central among these, is the effort to effectively create a space for scholars to explore similar initiatives, focusing on the common goal of exploiting digital possibilities to create, preserve and foster knowledge of ancient South Asia.

The DiGA workshop counted on the participation of several eminent colleagues, whose contributions were organized in four thematic sessions and includes two roundtables. During the first session scholars variously involved in Gandharan studies presented their recent projects with a particular focus on those activities involving the use of digital tools; Abdul Samad, head of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Directorate of Archaeology and Museums (KPDOAM), gave a short introduction to the activities of this institution focussing on the international cooperation. The KPDOAM is a primary partner and principal interlocutor of the DiGA Project. Stefan Baums (Ludwig‐Maximilians‐University, Munich) reported on the corpus of 2,775 items that he and Andrew Glass uploaded so far on the website Gandhari.org. This corpus includes Gandhāran artefacts inscribed in the Gāndhārī language and Kharoṣṭhī script, providing for each item visual and textual documentation as well as a set of metadata for an as accurate as possible contextualization. Gandhari.org includes a series of features that make this resource precious not only for philological studies but also for art history and archaeology, favouring investigations on Buddhism in Gandhāra across disciplines. Peter Stewart (University of Oxford) presented the activities of the Classical Art Research Centre of the University of Oxford, giving an overview of the available resources for Ancient Greek and Gandharan Art, especially focussing on the accomplishments related to the Gandhara Connections project that, since 2017, constitutes a prominent platform for Gandharan studies.

This first session introduced us to the vast variety of approaches adopted to delve into Gandharan studies. However, a huge part of DiGA’s work and involvement in the research world is related to Digital Humanities. For this reason, we invited renowned experts in this growing field to speak in the second session. Gethin Rees (The British Library) presented Pelagios and methods for visualising geospatial information to the audience, highlighting the advantages of such an approach for Gandhara. Pelagios is a network aimed at linking information online about places. DiGA embraces the methods of this initiative. Indeed, one of the preparatory activities for the DiGA project was a working group founded by a Pelagios grant (https://medium.com/pelagios/linked-data-methodologies-in-gandh%C4%81ran-buddhist-art-and-texts-e0e6444b26a8). Florian Kräutli (University of Zürich) reported on the practical approaches to study digital connection and to create bridges among them. He showed some of the technological drivers to guarantee easy exchange of metadata and to establish standards for publication of digital images. Through the presentation of some case studies, the audience was introduced to the basic building blocks necessary to  bridge digital collections. Isabella Nicka (University of Salzburg) offered insights into a novel approach to visual narratives. In her presentation she showed the solutions applied in the REALonline and ONAMA projects to model visual narratives. Such an approach is also very promising to study the artistic production from Gandhara, largely dominated by narrative reliefs illustrating Buddhist themes.The second session of this workshop opened up to a lot of new ideas and research avenues for those involved in South Asian studies. Digital humanists shared their best practice examples and presented a range of digital tools that have the potential to advance research in Gandharan studies and more broadly in South Asian studies.

The next two sessions took place on the 8th of February with a series of presentations concerned with ongoing research projects at the crossroads of digital humanities, South and Central Asian studies. Cameron Petrie (University of Cambridge) introduced the MAHSA [Mapping Archaeological Heritage in South Asia] project, an exciting enterprise combining the analysis of historic maps, remote sensing imagery and ground survey. MAHSA is a collaborative project whose results are open access and can complement and interact with other ongoing and future research. Csaba Kiss (University of Naples “L’Orientale”) shared his own challenges and minimal computing solutions for the study of a corpus of śaiva manuscripts in the frame of the ERC founded Śivadharma Project. One of the main challenges of his work is the implementation of a working environment to edit and reconstruct medieval texts received with countless variants. This approach shows how digitisation is not only about visualising and displaying data, but also constitutes a precious tool for actual research and analysis. Camillo Formigatti (Bodleyan Library, Oxford) presented the 3-year project Finding Archives and Manuscripts Across Oxford’s Unique Special Collections (FAMOUS). This project aims at creating a digital environment for the University of Oxford’s manuscripts and archives, and drawing public attention to material hidden into the University colleges’ libraries. Such an ambitious endeavour faces theoretical difficulties for cataloguing South Asian manuscripts, opening up discussions on current standards and guidelines.

The projects that were presented in the fourth and last session, focussed on bringing art historical and archaeological material from regions bordering Gandhara into the digital space. Jason Neelis (Wilfried Laurier University, Waterloo) presented the ongoing efforts to develop and apply digital tools for preserving the cultural heritage of an extensive corpus of epigraphic and petroglyphic material at sites along the Upper Indus River and its tributary valleys. Several partners from Canada, Europe and Pakistan work together in order to refine the use of integrated techniques such as photogrammetry, 3D laser scanning, Reflectance Transformation Imaging, and Panotouring. Besides the state-of-the-art documentation of sites, an important aim of this project it to improve interoperability and work toward shared terminologies with other Digital Humanities researchers in Gandharan and South Asian studies. Laurianne Bruneau, Martin Vernier, Ani Danielyan and Philippe Pons (East Asian Civilizations Research Centre (CRCAO), Paris, France) introduced the audience to the Himalayan Rock Art Database (HiRADa). This pioneering project is dedicated to Himalaya as a whole and seeks to  reconstruct routes at the intra-regional level and to gain new insights on people, their movement and settlements. HiRADa is developing a thesaurus and aiming at a systematic documentation of sites often facing imminent threats. Ines Konczak and Erik Radisch (Saxon Academy of Sciences and Humanities) presented the Digital Information System of the Project “Buddhist Murals of Kucha on the Northern Silk Road”, the aim of the project is to document the original iconographic programme in the caves as well as the pictorial content of the paintings and to study them from a cultural-historical perspective. For the management of data on the caves, the project has developed a comprehensive digital information system including a relational database.

Besides enjoying the very informative and stimulating presentations, the DiGA workshop invited scholars to actually engage in discussion and exchange. To foster such dialogues, we organised two roundtables, inviting for each of them selected speakers to open the discussion, we called these speakers CoStars, short for ‘conversation starters’. A key objective of the roundtables was to generate a network of scholars sharing common views on the future of South Asian studies and to build a community with a common interest in the intersection between South Asian and Buddhist Studies and Digital Humanities. The first roundtable explored the topic “Technical strategies and interoperability of Data – Present and Future”. In the first round Florinda De Simini (“L’Orientale” University of Naples) and Élie Roux (Buddhist Digital Resource Center, Boston), drew upon their own experience and perspective on the field to open the discussion on the current key challenges for digitisation projects. They both briefly discussed the advantages and disadvantages offered by digitisation techniques and issues of availability of digitized material. The ensuing open discussion focused on challenging the idea of digitisation as just a tool for cataloguing, while it offers heuristic strategies for research in fields related to Indology and Buddhist studies. Another major issue discussed was sustainability. Indeed, one of the issues striking hard on scholars is technological obsolescence. Participants from the audience, CoStars and moderators from the DiGA team agreed that this is an important issue and proposed some possible mitigation measures. Among the possible strategies to face obsolescence, they agreed that data decentralization and migration would favour long term sustainability (e.g. including migration scripts as long term sustainability strategy in extant projects). In the second round the discussion – lead by CoStars Daniel Balogh (Humboldt University, Berlin) and Antonio Amato (Italian Archaeological Mission to Pakistan) – focussed on LOD protocols as an effective strategy for linking collections and datasets especially across media types. The need for connection is particularly felt in the field as the roundtable participants made clear. The use of standardized vocabularies – that can be released as integrations for project specific sets – appears as the main viable strategy for the participants’ research fields.

On day two, we hosted a second roundtable on the topic “Heuristic value of digital strategies and their impact on disciplines in South/Central Asian studies and beyond” inviting as CoStars Ashwini Lakshminarayanan (“Sapienza” University of Rome) and Fozia Naz (Taxila Institute of Asian Civilizations, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad) for the first round, and Muhammad Hameed (Department of Archaeology University of Punjab, Lahore) and Alexandra Van Leene (Independent Scholar) for the second. Discussion started by playing around with the allegations that DH is just gimmicky, just to highlight instead the added scientific value of the digital component in our projects (data collection, processing, presentation, research insights). An interesting part of the discussion focussed on accessibility of data which can be sensitive (for example access to archaeological gazetteers for sites at risk of looting), digital repatriation and restitution of knowledge, strategies to avoid the potential neo-colonial model ignited by the extant technological divide that sees Western academia in a position of privilege.

Roundtable discussions, as well as the presentation sessions, made clear that there is a strong will to cooperate and to keep the dialogue flowing among the different actors involved. Our guests advocate for interoperability and exchange, as does the DiGA project. The first DiGA workshop not only showcased examples of best practice in connection to the use of digital tools for dissemination, sharing and preservation of cultural heritage, but it also laid the foundations for establishing a lasting network of like-minded scholars particularly interested in bridging collections of images and text in South Asia and beyond. In order to make such a network a practical and effective instrument for cooperation and exchange, the DiGA team will at first set up an online community, promoting the establishment of working groups focused on specific issues and research questions posed by digitisation.

In conclusion, looking at the discussions, at the future programs and at the established dialogues, the DiGA Kickoff Workshop was a successful event. However we also need to acknowledge some shortcomings, such as the limited accessibility of the format despite it being held online. Availability does not correspond indeed to full accessibility, and not recording or streaming the event made it inaccessible to more potential participants (e.g. residents of other time-zones). Our aim is to put our effort to minimize also such difficulties arisen from the necessity to safeguard intellectual property and dissemination rights for some of the participants. Improving accessibility is duly noted as a good resolution for future events!


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