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NEH Grant

 September 29, 2021

Jarvis project will create virtual visits to an African slave fort

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Aerial image of Fort Amsterdam in May 2019 before start of excavations. (Photo courtesy of Michael Jarvis)

Virtual tours will help us better understand why Black past lives matter. 

Michael Jarvis’ latest digital history project at the University of Rochester couldn’t come at a better time.

"Black Past Lives Matter: Digital Kormantin,” funded with a $99,874 NEH Digital Humanities grant, will create a website with meticulously detailed virtual tours of a 1632 English fort on the coast of Ghana that was among the earliest to send enslaved Africans to the American colonies.

Sustained Black Lives Matter protests have focused national attention on persisting racial inequalities in the United States. Because this racism “has been centuries in the making, reconciliation depends upon all Americans understanding a Black history extending back four centuries temporally and across the Atlantic world spatially,” says Jarvis, a history professor who also infuses archaeology and digital media studies in his teaching and research.

Moreover, the website will be accessible to millions of people who, even without the travel barriers raised by COVID 19, would never have the means or opportunity to visit the coast of Ghana.

“Although no substitute for an actual visit, this project will make virtual visitation possible for an historic site every bit as important to American history as Jamestown or Plymouth Rock,” says Jarvis.

Enormous data sets for the project have already been amassed from previous archaeological excavations, photogrammetry, and laser scans conducted as part of the Ghana summer field school Jarvis helped conduct at the site.  The current project enlists scores of students, researchers, and faculty members from multiple disciplines and institutions, both in the US and abroad. The project also plans to make a follow-up visit to Ghana early next year to capture 360-degree videos and to interview site guides.

The project culminates in a round table conference next May that Jarvis describes as “equal parts academic critique and responsive design game-jam.” Historians, archaeologists, video game designers, technologists, digital humanities theorists, and education specialists from the US, Ghana, and Netherlands who contributed to the project will play through the tours and share their reflections, criticisms, and suggestions, which will be implemented in real time during the conference where possible.

The result will be a website portal enabling us to travel across time and space to visit the slave trade fort as it is today, as it was in 2019 during an archaeological dig, and in the year 1790. The website, which will be accessible to the public and other researchers free of charge, will also include a digital archive of historical documents, archaeological findings, and slave trade data related to the site, and a guide documenting how the virtual tours were created.

Jarvis hopes the project will provide a model for museums and other heritage sites to develop similar virtual experiences of their own.

Jarvis, the former director of the University’s Digital Media Studies program, instructed students in digital archaeology in the Ghana field school from 2017 to 2019. The school investigated nine European slave trade castles and forts in coastal Ghana, including Kormantin/Fort Amsterdam, which are collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The school was a collaboration involving the University of Ghana, University of Rochester, Syracuse University, and the Ghana Museums and Monuments Board. Jarvis also directs the Smith Island Archaeology Project in Bermuda and ran five UR field schools there between 2012 to 2019.

Support for Jarvis’s Black Past Lives Matter: Digital Kormantin project will be provided by the University’s Digital Scholarship team, Studio X, the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies, the Andrew Mellon Digital Humanities program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities. 

Individual University of Rochester collaborators will include Yuhao Zhu, assistant professor of computer science; Renato Perucchio, chair and professor of mechanical engineering, director of the Archaeology, Technology and Historical Structures Program, and co-director of the Ghana field school; and Jayne Lammers, professor at the Warner School of Education. Faculty and video game design and development students in Rochester Institute of Technology’s MAGIC Spells Studio will advise and work on the project.

This project and the overarching collaboration with the University of Ghana received seed funding from Global Engagement‘s Global Partnership Fund.

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Unity software was used to superimpose a model of the 1790 reconstruction of Fort Amsterdam onto an image of the current ruins compiled with photogrammetry. (Courtesy of Michael Jarvis)

-- Bob Marcotte, bmarcotte@UR.Rochester.edu