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“When Big Data Slows Down: Digital Humanities and the Study of Roman Amphitheaters” (Dr. Sebastian Heath, NYU unCOMMON Salon, April 21, 2015)


Dr. Heath begins his presentation

Dr. Sebastian Heath, Clinical Assistant Professor of Ancient Studies at the NYU Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, spoke at the last NYU unCOMMON Salon of the Spring 2015 semester on April 21, 2015. The topic of his talk was the DH methods by which he is attempting to enrich our understanding of leisure in the Roman Empire. But running throughout the talk, there were also veins of pedagogical insight and open access advocacy, as they relate to both Digital and traditional Humanities. Dr. Heath’s presentation elicited strong responses from the audience, and the discussion that followed was an insightful back and forth about what constitutes The Humanities, and how it is taught in a digital world.

Dr. Heath began his talk by encouraging the audience to follow along with his slides, which are available at, and acknowledging the research going on at other institutions, including UNC’s Ancient World Mapping Center, and their willingness to make available the data that made his own research and visualizations possible. This sense of collaborative effort is, of course, vital to the Digital Humanities, but also reflects directly on the type of insight that Dr. Heath is seeking by studying Roman Amphitheaters. We cannot know, he says, exactly what it felt or looked like to be one of 10,000 people sitting in the stands of an amphitheater on any given day, but we can use the “remnants of big data” from the past to try and help color our understanding of the social and cultural atmosphere of leisure events in the Roman Empire.

To this end, Dr. Heath brought up a series of photos and videos giving first-person views from inside various amphitheaters. YouTube videos of walking tours, or reenactments of gladiatorial battles, or Google Earth views of the countryside surrounding amphitheaters may not be traditional scholarship, but they connect us with a place and event in a visceral way that charts and datasets do not. Much of the work that he does, Dr. Heath explained, is building datasets that back up the feelings that we have about the Roman Empire, ‘factualizing’ common knowledge, and making it citable, which in turn, creates a baseline of data for further research and experimentation.

The method by which Dr. Heath evaluates the social impact of Roman amphitheaters is through analysis of the size, location and capacity of the amphitheaters themselves. The height of the “amphitheater boom” in the Roman Empire occurred during the 2nd century AD, and all of his subsequent statistics represent the population of the Roman Empire (and its amphitheaters) at approximately 150 AD. There were roughly 230 amphitheaters across the empire at this time, and basic location plotting shows us that they are concentrated around Rome, Gaul and Northern Africa.

However, since the size and therefore seating capacity of these amphitheaters can vary greatly, Dr. Heath, with the help of Katie Anderson, a librarian with NYU Data Services, wrote a script to calculate the approximate capacity of a given amphitheater based on its known measurements. This gave a total of 2.2 million seats in amphitheaters in the Roman Empire in 150 AD, with the highest capacity (largest) amphitheaters continuing to be concentrated around the Roman capital.

So far, none of this is particularly surprising, and Dr. Heath was quick to point out that he didn’t expect it to be. One of the benefits of using the available “big data” on the studies of ancient peoples is the ability to quantify things that scholars (and the public) have always taken for granted. But, by having the data, visualizations and repeatable methods via openly available code, these ideas become citable, and build a foundation for further research. He highlighted his role as a learner in this situation, turning to NYU Libraries for instruction on compiling the code that he needed, and brought up the question of who should be learning these methods. He was forced to learn how to code, create visualizations and openly share his work as a matter of course while doing his research, but believes that these same tools and skills should be taught to current and future students, beginning at the undergraduate level.

Dr. Heath went on to overview some further work comparing amphitheater concentration and distance from Roman roads, positioning this information as valuable to creating a picture of the everyday Roman citizen and their knowledge of the surrounding world, eg. “Is my cousin in the next town over also visiting the amphitheater today?”

As this point, though, I would like to highlight some of the discussion that arose after the presentation, not only about Dr. Heath’s project, but about the nature of Digital Humanities research, and the apparently blurring boundaries between Humanities, Statistics and Computer Science.

The ending of the presentation was punctuated by commentary from a woman who was very dissatisfied with the content and methods that Dr. Heath outlined. She did not find the talk “in the least bit edifying” and felt she had been misled into attending “just an IT talk.” Dr. Heath apologized, but this particular woman was not interested in continuing the conversation and left. This did, however, create a very interesting dialog among the rest of the attendees about the nature of Digital Humanities, and how it differs from the traditional Humanities not just in method, but in scope and presentation.

Another audience member asked, “What makes this project still a humanities project, rather than a statistics or social science project?” Dr. Heath’s response was that despite the data-based methods, and digital tools used, the “humans are still the goal,” meaning that the larger questions being asked by this research is not about the amphitheaters themselves, but rather about the lives and experiences of the people who used them. In my opinion, this kind of logic could be applied to nearly any kind of research project to make it a humanities project (“It’s not about the non-linear algebra, but rather the people who use it.”).

But, perhaps there is something to that. I think these questions (and outright dismissal) highlight the fears among traditional Humanists that DH scholarship is too far removed from the abstract, ephemeral notions of knowledge and understanding that separate the Humanities from the Sciences. Dr. Heath’s response, and subsequent explanation of his definition of DH, positions the field as humanizing the sciences, rather than applying scientific methods to the humanities, as DH is often defined. That role reversal removes (or at least lessens) the anxiety that the humanities will become lost in a world of Big Data, and gives the power back to the humanist, to inject empathy and critical understanding into all fields of scholarly work.

Dr. Heath went on to say that in a world of increasing amounts of data, and increasing pressure to find clear black and white answers from that data, DH can (should?)  be “defending the middle,” continuing to produce and defend scholarship that does not have a clear yes or no, does not always contain new revelations, but rather grows our multifaceted understanding of what it means to be human, now, and throughout history.

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