CAST Researchers Awarded NEH Grant on Digital Storytelling About Precolonial Africa

The 18th century archaeological site of Seoke in southeastern Botswana. Seoke was the capital of the Ngwaketse people and is contributing to redefining what urbanism has looked like in the distant and recent past.
Stefania Merlo

The 18th century archaeological site of Seoke in southeastern Botswana. Seoke was the capital of the Ngwaketse people and is contributing to redefining what urbanism has looked like in the distant and recent past.

Four researchers from the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies were recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities collaborative grant with Cambridge University and three South African institutions on digital storytelling about precolonial 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 optimized to allow for low-resourced educators to engage with digital storytelling.

With the goal of fostering equitable participation in digital storytelling, the team from CAST — Carla Klehm, Angelia Payne, Malcolm Williamson and Chris Angel — will work to improve an African digital archive called metsemegologolo, or "ancient towns" in Setswana, the official language of the country of Botswana.

"In Botswana and throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Africans participated in global trade long before the European arrives on the scene: actually, for about the past 1,500 years," explained Carla Klehm, principal investigator of the project. "Gold, ivory and other goods such as salt and glass were traded among African communities through networks spanned not just 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 Witwatersrand, University of Pretoria and the KwaZulu Natal Museum, all in South Africa, and co-directed by Cambridge University, is an open source prototype database containing archaeological data, heritage objects, historical maps, oral histories and poetry about precolonial African urbanism. This project develops a complementary U.K.-U.S. collaboration among the metsemegologolo coordinators Stefania Merlo, Justine Wintjes and Anton Coetzee; digital heritage experts; southern African educators; and the geospatial experts at CAST with the purpose of exploring digital storytelling in low-resourced educational environments. Payne is a senior research assistant, Williamson is a research associate in geospatial applications and education, Angel is a research assistant professor and director of Spatial Data Science and Klehm is a research assistant professor, all at CAST. Klehm also directs the National Science Foundation's Spatial Archaeometry Research Collaborations (SPARC) and the National Endowment for the Humanities' Spatial Archaeology Residential and Online Institute (SAROI), both of which encourage geospatial applications into archaeological research.

The funding opportunity, "NEH/AHRC New Directions for Digital Scholarship in Cultural Institutions," is a joint initiative between the NEH and the United Kingdom's Arts and Humanities Research Council to encourage transformational scholarship on digital methods through intellectual exchange between United States and United Kingdom institutions.

"World prehistory textbooks usually just emphasize human evolution and colonialism in their coverage of African history, overlooking millennia of accomplishments by and ingenuity on the part of Africans," Klehm said. "Increasing awareness of precolonial African urbanism, and of digital representations across the Global South more broadly, are part of the ongoing process of decolonizing the digital humanities, helping to deepen connections to, and preservation of, cultural heritage sites around the world. We are looking forward to interfacing with a fantastic international team that has been doing an exemplary job and exploring what may be possible together."

The project culminates in a teamwide workshop held at Cambridge in September.

About the Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies: The Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, or CAST as it is better known, was founded in 1991 as a research center in the University of Arkansas' Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. It is dedicated to research and applications in 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 has been involved in a multi-year CRADA's with ESRI. With partners at the university, state, national and international level, CAST offers students, faculty, and the public opportunities to learn about and use geospatial technologies.



Carla Klehm, research assistant professor
Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies


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