Classics teacher Christopher Sheppard’s Latin 4 class has taken advantage of the technology and modern studio space in the Chiang Center for Innovation and Collaboration for a project rooted in past millennia: the translation and analysis of ancient texts. Since early April, the class has met weekly in the Chiang Center’s computer lab, where they have used oversize monitors to view digitized papyrus scrolls and manuscripts from Germany’s Berlin Papyrus Database and other sources. This has allowed students to study the texts in great detail, even though they are fragmented and difficult to read as a result of the complicated, messy processes through which they have come down through the ages.
Mr. Sheppard designed the project to allow his students to grapple firsthand with digitized papyri and manuscripts—in much the same way that researchers do—to make their content accessible to others. Working in teams, the nine sophomores, juniors and seniors are creating line-by-line transcriptions of an assigned document’s Latin text, a full English translation, and written commentary to help readers make sense of its Latin and underlying themes. Finally, students will build a website and publish their findings, bringing ancient history to life for a 21st century audience.
“Students are engaging in real-world scholarship in this highly collaborative project,” Mr. Sheppard said. “While the documents they are working on have been previously translated, each new translation brings a fresh perspective and a new interpretation. Students are doing the work of classicists as they form arguments and solve the puzzles and problems presented by these texts.”
In addition to using the Chiang Center’s computer lab, the class also headed up to the third-floor art studio during one class meeting to try their hand at inscribing their translations onto actual pieces of papyrus. Mr. Sheppard observed that the interdisciplinary nature of the project—which, at times, has pulled in elements of art, science, classics, humanism and technology—makes it a perfect fit for the Chiang Center’s facilities, and students have appreciated the chance to delve into an age-old language in the contemporary building.
“The papyrus project has been an amazing way to connect real-life ancient texts and modern technology,” said Emia Musabegovic ’20. “It’s very rewarding to be able to use the translation tools I’ve picked up during my two years at Blair and apply them to the original texts we are viewing on high-resolution monitors. We have to exercise patience and a little bit of guess-and-check to reach accurate translations. So far, it has been a challenging process, but I have enjoyed it and hope to be able to do more projects like this next year.” Cortney Klein ’18 has also enjoyed translating the texts, adding, “Through this project our understanding of ancient Latin writings has definitely grown.”
Noting that he purposely chose lesser-known manuscripts and personal correspondence for this project in order to broaden students’ knowledge of Latin texts beyond canonical authors like Vergil and Cicero, Mr. Sheppard remarked that a “a treasure trove” of untranslated, digitized documents is available on the British Museum’s and other websites. “Deciphering them is a project of international scope,” he said, “and Blair students may well be a part of that work in the future.”