Historians, data scientists work to preserve endangered Middle Eastern culture with NEH grant

Vanderbilt Divinity School and the Jean and Alexander Heard Libraries announced a grant of $350,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities that is enabling Vanderbilt to partner with Texas A&M and Marquette universities to continue preserving the history of Syriac culture. Syriac is a medieval dialect of Aramaic once spoken widely by Middle Eastern Christian communities. 

Linking Texts and Data from the Medieval Middle East: Next Generation Discovery and Access Tools for Syriac Cultural Heritage” is a collaborative digital project focused on making English translations of Syriac literature freely available online for students, scholars and the public.  

This innovative project uses data science to aggregate information and create software for preserving Syriac heritage. Specifically, the project will supplement the translation database with a linked data research tool designed by the Vanderbilt libraries. The result will be a next-generation digital reference work featuring the rich poetry and history of Syriac culture, and it represents the long-standing collaboration between faculty and library staff to combine research excellence with expertise in preservation and digital collections in the development of Srophé, a cultural heritage database platform.  

“As librarians, we are excited to support Professor [David] Michelson and colleagues in the preservation of this endangered cultural heritage by drawing on our developing expertise in scalable and sustainable linked data applications,” Heard Libraries Chief Digital Strategist Clifford Anderson said. Michelson is an associate professor of the history of Christianity and classical studies. 

The data published by this project will be added to The Syriac Reference Portal, a long-standing digital collection curated by the Vanderbilt libraries. The digital collection has previously been funded by NEH grants received in 2012 and 2015.  

“Syriaca.org’s work preserves and makes Syriac culture accessible for all. This is an essential expression of Vanderbilt University’s mission as an institution that is dedicated to preserving the world’s knowledge with a special focus on minority and endangered cultures,” said Emilie Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School.  

The Syriac language today survives in use by minority populations in Iraq, Syria and other countries in the region. Documents in Syriac are some of the most valuable historical sources for understanding the development and interaction of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These Syriac sources offer unique perspectives on the history of the Middle East from Roman and Byzantine times into the Islamic era and even up to the tumultuous present day in Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Outside of its value to historians, this project offers the Syriac diaspora communities a new means of access to information about their own identity and history, as war and political strife have disrupted traditional institutions of cultural memory and preservation for many in the Middle East. 

“As the New Testament accounts make clear, some of the earliest Christian communities were Aramaic-speaking. Until recently, however, the history of Syriac Christianity was rarely taught or studied in most universities in the English-speaking world,” Michelson said. “This project makes an online collection freely and conveniently available for research and teaching about Syriac in English. These resources will benefit all kinds of students and will be especially valuable to Syriac communities outside the Middle East who are seeking to share their unique heritage with future generations and the world.” 

Vanderbilt’s research team is led by Michelson with support from Steven Baskauf, Heard Libraries data science and data curation specialist, and lead developer Winona Salesky. Students will participate in the project through Immersion Vanderbilt, gaining experience in the digital preservation of cultural heritage. 

The grant proposal was supported by Research Development and Support, which offers proposal development assistance for private (foundations) and federally funded opportunities. Services include searches for new sponsors, coordination and team building for proposals of any size, content development and draft review. RDS further supports faculty by building relationships with external sponsors, hosting workshops and providing guides and language for common proposal requirements. RDS is in the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Innovation. To learn more about RDS or request services, email rds@vanderbilt.edu.

This story is a reprint of a story published by Vanderbilt News.