CAST researchers receive NEH grant for digital storytelling on pre-colonial Africa

Stefania Merlo

The 18th century archaeological site of Seoke in southeastern Botswana. Seoke was the capital of the Ngwaketse people and is helping to redefine what urban planning looked like in the distant and recent past.

Four researchers from the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities Collaborative Fellowship with the University of Cambridge and three South African institutions on digital storytelling from pre-colonial Africa. “Digital Storytelling on African Urbanisms: A Model to Empower Education Initiatives Across the Global South” explores how an open-access digital archive can be leveraged to enable low-resource educators to engage in digital storytelling.

In an effort to foster equitable participation in digital storytelling, the CAST team – Carla Klehm, Angelia Payne, Malcolm Williamson and Chris Angel – will work to enhance an African digital archive called metsemegologoor “ancient towns” in Setswana, the official language of the country of Botswana.

“In Botswana and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Africans have participated in global trade long before the arrival of Europeans: in fact, for around 1,500 years,” explained Carla Klehm, the project’s lead researcher. “Gold, ivory and other goods such as salt and glass were traded between African communities through networks that stretched not only across the deserts and forests of Africa, but also across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and Asia”.

Metsemegolgolo, based at the University of the Witwatersrand, the University of Pretoria and the KwaZulu Natal Museum, all in South Africa, and co-led by the University of Cambridge, is an open source prototype database containing archaeological data, heritage objects, historical maps, oral histories and poetry on pre-colonial African town planning. This project develops a complementary UK-US collaboration between metsemegologolo coordinators Stefania Merlo, Justine Wintjes and Anton Coetzee; digital heritage experts; educators from Southern Africa; and CAST geospatial experts to explore digital storytelling in low-resource educational settings. Payne is a senior research assistant, Williamson is a research associate in geospatial applications and education, Angel is an assistant research professor and director of Spatial Data Science, and Klehm is an assistant research professor, all at CAST. Klehm also directs the National Science Foundation’s Space Archaeometry Research Collaborations (SPARC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities Residential and Online Institute for Space Archeology (SAROI)both of which promote geospatial applications in archaeological research.

The possibility of funding, “New NEH/AHRC Directions for Digital Scholarships in Cultural Institutions“, is a joint initiative of the NEH and the Arts and Humanities Research Council of the United Kingdom aimed at encouraging transformational research in digital methods through intellectual exchange between institutions in the United States and the United Kingdom.

“World prehistory textbooks typically emphasize human evolution and colonialism in their coverage of African history, neglecting millennia of achievement and ingenuity on the part of Africans,” Klehm said. “The growing awareness of pre-colonial African urbanism and digital representations in the broader Global South is part of the ongoing process of decolonizing the digital humanities, helping to deepen connections and the preservation of cultural heritage sites around the world. We look forward to interfacing with a fantastic international team who have done an exemplary job and explored what might be possible together.”

The project concludes with a team-wide workshop held in Cambridge in September.

About the Center for Advanced Space Technologies: The Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, or CAST as it is better known, was founded in 1991 as a research center of the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Arkansas. It is dedicated to research and applications in the fields of geospatial analysis and modeling, enterprise spatial databases, remote sensing, digital photogrammetry and geospatial interoperability. CAST has been selected as a Center of Excellence by Leica Geosystems, Intergraph Corporation, Oracle Corporation, Trimble Navigation Ltd., Trimble/Definiens Imaging Software, Safe Software, PCI Geomatics, eSpatial Systems and participated in a multi-year CRADA with ESRI. With partners at the university, state, national and international levels, CAST provides opportunities for students, faculty and the public to learn and use geospatial technologies.

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