Living Pasts: an interesting ‘training ground’ for historians

By Tim Overkempe, Living Pasts student 2020-I

As a historian, it is often our aim to make the past ‘alive’: telling stories as if they are being told to the reader personally and describing historical events as if one is actually there. This course, with the matching title ‘Living Pasts’, serves as an ideal training ground for such a task. In this short review, I will briefly reflect on the opportunities that this course has to offer and possible difficulties that may arise.

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Being a geographer in co-design – handguide for future students

By Tessa Nauta, Living Pasts student 2020-I

Being a geography student can be a little confusing sometimes. You learn so many things, yet ask yourself the question so every often: “But what will I do with all this information?”. Your knowledge will be put to the test when working with people from other disciplines, thus co-design forms. This blog post will discuss the role of being a geographer when working in an interdisciplinary team.

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The course organization of Living Pasts

By Michiel Jekel, Living Pasts student 2020-I

On December 31 2019, China alerted WHO that in the city of Wuhan were various cases of uncommon pneumonia caused by an unknown virus. The following weeks more and more became known about the disease called COVID-19 and the virus that causes it, which is SARS-CoV-2. At that moment it all seemed very far away and not harmful for us. Students were finishing courses of period 2 and with the start of period 3 on the third of February 2020 nothing really changed for them. I started with the Living Pasts course. A course that is very different organized with respect to my chemistry courses. With the entry of the coronavirus in the Netherlands and the closing of the university, all courses moved to online platforms. How is Living Pasts organized and how has it changed after the corona outbreak?

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[W5S2] Re-enactment

The course of this Friday was yet again very different from all the previous ones. I sat down, grabbed my stuff and was ready to go. I knew we would have a lecture from Sven Dupré, and when looking at the course manual it said: Re-enactment with Sven Dupré.

This confused me a bit, because wasn’t quite sure if he would show up disguised as a Roman centurion or just an ordinary lecture. It surely wasn’t the first, however, it certainly wasn’t the latter. Prior to the course, we had been instructed to bring drawing and painting attributes. We collectively gathered a lot of stuff to draw or create a piece of art with. However, Ivar naturally had to outdo us all by bringing and installing a VR headset, giving us the opportunity to draw in ‘Virtual Reality’. After all this, we still don’t know what the lecture was about. Mr. Dupré started talking and explaining what he does and meanwhile Ivar was still busy setting up his toys, which was distracting me just a little bit. But while I was distracted, Sven explained what he is doing on a daily basis. ‘Artechne’, the reconstruction, ‘replication’ (you can’t relive the past) and the re-enactment of for example recipes from the 18th century. Artechne is all about the technique in the arts. It firstly uses text as a source, this in the form of recipes which they will try to reconstruct. Sometimes even using modern techniques such as ‘3D printing’. The reconstruction and following of recipes is for instance to discover how an object feels or what it takes to make it. The next part of artechne is de collaboration during the process with experts with all a different expertise. Thirdly the dynamic aspect, the varying skills, senses and even the order of the process. Finally, sites matters, where was the object made? In what kind of environment?

Those four points are briefly what the lecture of Sven was about. Then we got to the ‘drawing’ part of the course. We were given the assignment to interpret a recipe for wax dating from the 18th century for instance, the surroundings of where the object was crafted. This is not mentioned in the instructions, but could be of great importance while reproducing and following instructions. We were divided into two groups, one got to use the headset and the others all the other materials that were gathered. I was quite impressed by the end result of the other group. They used paint very cleverly to make a three dimensional wax sticking out of the paper using a lot of paint. Ironically, everything made in VR was in 3D, but you weren’t able to actually touch it. What was done by the person in virtual reality, would be displayed on a computer and looked fairly ordinary. However, when trying it myself, I was flabbergasted by it. The experience was awesome and quite unimaginable. After having finished the assignment and the lecture, we thanked Sven and went on to work on the prototypes for the final hour. This was mostly installing software to be able to program the application. Finally, the course came to an end. I had to leave unfortunately but the others went on to play games in VR. Overall, it was a really educational, interesting and certainly fun course.

By David Struch

[W4S2] Prepare Project Proposal

During this session both groups were given the time to prepare their project proposal. The first group comprises of the three U-Talent students. The second one is made up of a History and Philosophy of Science master’s student and a University College Utrecht undergraduate student. While these groups were working, Ivar showed them projects that might inspire their end product.

He started with Histomap, which is an interactive map that focuses on Utrecht. On it, users can add markers, stories, pictures and videos to help the history of Utrecht to be told in all its facets. However, there are no markers on the Neude so far. Excitingly, this can be discussed with one of the co-creators of Histomap, Jan Maas, when he visits on the 11th of October.

Next, Ivar introduced them to Geocontexting Printers and Publishers 1450-1800 which visualizes the locations of former printers and publishers on a geographical interface with georeferenced historic map layers. For the end products, this site is particularly interesting as it allows you to uncover specific biographical data ⁠— showing the lives of people and where they were located throughout history.

Lastly, Ivar showed them the Georeferencer tool made available by the Utrecht University Library. Here, you can overlay (historic) maps on each other which can show interesting changes in the city over time. For the Neude, about 100% of maps have already been georeferenced. This is a tool that can help the groups a great deal in visualizing Neude’s past in their eventual products.

Near the end of the session, the two groups shortly pitched the initial ideas about their products. The objective was to seek collaboration as the U-Talent students suggested the merging of the now separate projects. This would make sense because they are keen on programming while the university students are excited about the historical content.

However, we should meditate on the negatives and positives of collaboration first. It is a great idea in terms of sharing knowledge and bridging disciplines as this could broaden each group’s viewpoints on the project.

Yet, it could also pose problems, especially in terms of merging groups. Everyone would want to prioritize the ideas they had for their own project initially and it would be hard to concede certain aspects of their apps.
Ideally, they would collaborate yet create their own end products. This way, important facets don’t get lost in the teamwork, they can bounce ideas off each other and offer/receive an outsider’s perspective to ensure optimal outcomes of the apps. So, we are currently thinking of ways to work together while still making sure both groups create their own product.

All in all, it was a productive session that offered exciting tools for the groups to work with and get inspiration from. It also helped inform both teams what the other was working on and enabled them to consider new possibilities together.

By Anna Tchitcherine

[W4S1] Data Management

Wednesday the 25th of September, first we got a workshop by Jacques Flores on high-quality data management. He started his presentation with a at first look childish video, but after the video started the relevancy of it became clear. The video showed two animated animals who struggled with some data-issues. I taught that some of the issues were unlikely to occur, but Jacques told us that this were some really common problems. We came rapidly to the conclusion that data is vulnerable and that it goes hand in hand with a lot of regulations.

Furthermore, we were told the importance of the accessibility of research data. By letting it be openly available, other researchers can reuse it. All those requirements for data can be summarized in the FAIR principles. Unfortunately, most data deals with at least a slight crisis.

  • Findable, this means that data must remain findable in the future.
  • Accessible, the data should be accessible without a license or so ever.
  • Interoperable, data needs to be in the right format so multiple types of data can be combined and exchanged.
  • Reusable, everything about your data needs to be clear so a right documentation is a must.

Data also often deals with protection issues. Some of the data contains private information. Privacy and security are really important for this kind of data. Good research data management is the key for this. To make a good research data management plan, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What type of data do you have?
  • What is the right format for your data?
  • How many files do you expect to have?
  • What is going to be the size of those files?
  • What is the origin of your data?

You can fill those answers in a DMP table:

TypeDescriptionOrigin / collectionFormatsSoftwareTotal file sizeNumber of files / samples
Lab and stable journalsDates, protocols, labworker, etc.Labworker / researcher.csv and .txteLabjournal100 – 500 Mb2 labjournals (consist of multiple files)
Biological dataBlood samplesVeterinarian1mL/animalNANA250 animals
Lab resultsGene expression and antibody titersMicroarray data and ELISA data.csv, .Rdata, .chp, .txtAffymetric, locally developed tool200 Gb20 data output files
BehaviouralAnimal behavior visually scoredResearcher and research assistants.csvNoldus observer and ethovisionKbs2 output datafiles
BodyweightBiweekly bodyweightStable workers.csvNAKbs1 output datafile
Statistical analysesScripts/codes and output tables and figuresResearcher.R, .SAS, .cvs, .tiffR, Rstudio, SAS, Excel1-50Mb5 scripts, 5 table files, 5 figure files

After we filled in a DMP table for our own projects, we talked about the importance of using the right format for your data. I usually don’t think about the right format, I just use what I think is handy. After this session, I will more carefully think about this. The right format means that it’s:

  • Non-proprietary
  • Unencrypted
  • Uncompressed
  • Commonly used
  • Interoperable
  • Open source

Then we got an explanation about folder structure. This was very relatable, because every mistake that could be made, I made at least once. Especially the name of a document is important. Cause if you lose it, you can easily find it back. This is something that I need to be more critical about, because this happens often to me.

We finished the presentation by some information about data storage and some more information about the security that comes with it. There are multiple ways to store your data. Every option has advantages and disadvantages, so you need to choose the option that fits the best for your type of data. I haven’t dealt with a lot of research data so far, but for this course I definitely will. This presentation was very useful for me and I am glad that I saw it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t present during the presentation about Mallet, but my group told me about it afterwards.

By Stan Nuijten

[W3S2] The beginning or end

The second session in the 3rd week about ‘deep time’ started with a deep lack…of students. Communication distortion on both, receiving and sending ends, prompted three students and one teacher to end up in the wrong classroom. Because time is a fleeting thing, the speaker of today’s session, João Trabucho Alexandre, decided to start by introducing himself. Alexandre is a geologist and interested in the deposition of mud into the ocean. In other – and more mysterious – words: rocks speak to him. The story they tell is about forever moving tectonic plates and always changing landscapes.

His goal for the session is to give us a new understanding of time, to make us familiar with ‘deep time’. One good method to better comprehend earth’s age is to stretch out your arm and imagine that the length from the centre of your chest to the tip of your fingernail represents the time from the big bang till our present. Now, when you follow this line with the fingers of your other hand and reach the middle of your stretched fingernail than you reached the time when human species started their reign on earth. With a small cut of your fingernail, human history disappears.

Image 1: Deep time at your fingers’ tip

The oldest subsurface in the Netherlands is about 400 million years old (Silurian Period). At that time, the land that later will become the nation of the Netherlands was still located where Surinam is now. Basically, the Netherlands is still a delta of the Rhein and Maasen. After the last big Ice Age the sea-level rose ‘quickly’; every year the coastline moved 100 meters! But, once the poles were melted the ‘great’ deluge receded, leaving behind very fertile land. This was the starting point for agriculture.

The tour

Every Dutch person uses 25 kilos of sand per year. For what you may ask? Mainly for the sublation of the coastline and renewing of buildings.

Starting our tour at Janskerhof, Alexandre pointed out that many houses in Utrecht are furnished with stones from other countries, e.g. Germany or Belgium. The little stairs leading to the entrance of building fifteen is granite and probably from Belgium. Granite is a limestone from the Carbonate Period. If you look closely you can see stems from corals or sea lilies. The next building we examined was the post office on the Neude. The art style in which it was built is called Amsterdam School. At that time, it was popular to use bricks and natural stone. The greyish, natural stone is a shell limestone originated from Trier, Germany. It’s called “Muschelkalk” and is about 250 million years old.

Image 2: Granite

At last, we looked at the stone outside of the Neude Flat. This stone is probably from Scandinavia and it’s a metamorphic style of stone. The original rock was sedimentary, maybe claystone, which then was pressured and under really hot temperature. Its structure is made out of thin plates that can be broken quite easily into pieces. Alexandre guessed that it originates from Precambrian times (500million years). In that era, all life consisted of bacteria. One of them, the Cyanobacteria produced free molecules of oxygen through photosynthesis. For other bacterias this oxygen was poison. The “Oxygen Crisis” caused the first great mass extinction in the history of the earth called. The organisms that prospered under these new circumstances were those who were able to use oxygen for their metabolism. Our ancestral lineage.

Image 3: “Muschelkalk”

Image 4: Types of metamorphic rocks

The end or beginning

One of the reasons why I picked this session was because of Alexandre’s talk. Alexandre referred to Stephen Gould who detected that the idea, that evolution is a linear process from simple to more complex living organisms, is a misconception. Gould’s book with the cheesy title ‘Wonderful Life’ is a critic against the seemingly inevitable determinism of evolution; i.e. that the evolution unfolded the way it did because of the working of natural selection. If this is the case, evolution and its outcomes would be predictable. But unpredictable variables, like the Oxygen Crisis or the Cambrian Explosion, show that this isn’t the case. Next to natural selection, other factors play a role (e.g. random drift, random mutation). The philosopher John Beatty refers to Gould’s criticism and asks accordingly “could the evolution have happened differently?” in his paper “Replaying Life’s Tape”

I’m fascinated by the evolution theory. Every time I’m sure that I fully understood it, it starts to confuse me again. To get hold of the series of events and their causal-dependancy resembles not only the work of a scientist but also of a historian. For Beatty, evolutionary biology is as much “science” as it is “history”. For me, geology has that in common with biology. Both use subjects (living organisms, rocks) as their witnesses, which are in a state of flux. Both deal with incomplete records. In the end, both disciplines raise issues about the concepts of contingency, time and necessity that we uphold. Geology offers a treasure of stories that we could tell through our Time Machine project. In the end, in some way, our existence, too, is virtual reality. It is one of many, that could have happened. A reality, that is not solely the product of nature’s predicaments, but of chance and choice too. To say it in other – more mysterious – words: life is nature’s play.


1) Gould, S. J. (1989). Wonderful Life. W.W. Norton & Co, New York.
2) Beatty, J 2006, ‘Replaying Life’s Tape’, The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 103, no. 7, pp. 336-362.

1) Gould, S. J. (1987). Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle. Harvard University Press, Harvard.
2) Spencer, R 2012, Yes, I am Giving You a Hint of What that Thing Is, Irish Limestone US, viewed 3 October 2019, .
3) Hofmann, Hofman Naturstein, viewed 3 October 2019, . 4) Annenberg Foundation, 2017, Grace’s Rock Site, viewed 3 October 2019, .

By Nayra Hammann

[W3S1] Brainstorming & Topic modelling

In, what we can already call, our fifth session, we started off only speaking English and we did a bit of a reflection on the previous session. We learned a lot about linked data and how to make a linked data model via programs like turtle, writing with the RDF standard. We also did a great exercise on co-creation with Stanford Protegé, something I think is very important for this course to succeed. I really enjoyed learning a bit about code writing. The linked data made out of the subject, predicate and object was also something new for me and it turned out to be really interesting. Ivar gave us a short summary about the upcoming exercises and subjects. He talked about the start of the final project and the article which needs to be around 5000 words, about a self-chosen subject. We also talked about project management which is quite important for this project to succeed via a nice manner. Project management is about how the project is organized, planned, prepared and completed. An important tool for project management is the Kanban board. It makes your project extremely organized which leads to a good working environment. The picture below is one of the variants of the Kanban board. You put the different tasks at the stage which it is in on the Kanban board. David, Stan and I will definitely use the Kanban board for our project.

Then Simon, Ivar, David, Stan and I talked about “the Article” and they showed us a few things about writing one. Simon and Ivar showed us that google scholar is a great place to find information and articles and they gave us a button to access documents that are not published for everybody to read for free. They also taught us the basics of writing an article by using the APA Research Paper Model, among other things. They taught us these things because David, Stan and I are 3 secondary school students, who participate in the U-Talent academy. We are doing this course for our thesis (and for our “Profiel Werkstuk”), therefore we do not know everything about writing a proper article.
Then we started doing some preparation, with quite some difficulty, for the workshop from Dr Viola. We used the Homebrew software and Dr Viola began talking about Topic modelling. I will give a summary about the things she taught us.
A topic: “a number of words that are related to each other” or “a set of terms that are likely to occur together”. A topic modelling tool like Mallet takes any unstructured text without computer readable annotations and looks for topics. A topic modelling tool does not know the meaning of the words. The model will run statistical calculations and will determine which words are the most likely to occur together and makes clusters of them and as you know that is what we call a topic.
There are many purposes for topic modelling. It is very useful if you need to examine a large corpora and you have great difficulty finding topics, or if you need subjective information and patterns and if you just do not have much time. However, topic modelling is less useful if your research is about collocations or is highly interpretive and only about quality.
Then we went on with topic modelling using mallet. Topic modelling with mallet guarantees impartial results, this without any intervention of the researcher. In mallet you are able to vary the amount of topics. You need to take a look at the created topics and determine with which amount of topics you will have the best quality of data. The topics are really useful but you still need to know your data, otherwise you won’t understand the topics.
For the next time I would like to be informed beforehand, this way we are able to prepare before the session and we would not have had the problems installing homebrew during the course.
We could use the topic modelling to create an organized summary of all the different newspaper articles related to the Neude. We will definitely try to use the topic modelling with our project.

By Brent van Dijken

[W2S2] The Digital Humanities

In this session we took it a bit easier and reflected with Toine Pieters on what the future of the Utrecht Time Machine could hold. We discussed network architectures (pitting centralised against decentralised), and which principles should guide our technical interventions.

Next up, Ivar offered an introduction to Linked Data: its principles, syntax and the use of ontologies. We dabbled in writing RDF ourselves (in Turtle format), looked at what SPARQL queries are capable of, and tried our hand at co-creating a rudimentary linked data overview of the Neude using Stanford Protegé.

[W2S1] Archival Sciences & Storytelling

Today was the first session we had our session in Het Utrechts Archief (HUA; the Utrecht Archives). We were welcomed heartily by Nettie Stoppelenburg, Annelot Vijn and Rick Companje, who introduced us to the Archive as an institution and as a community of practice.

Next up we delved into the history of the Neude, which has had several transformations over the centuries: from swamp to cattle market; tournament grounds to the place of a convent; from battleground to the site of the scaffold. Indeed, quite the eventful place, as Nettie narrated vividly.

We were then joined by Ioanna Lykourentzou, who introduced us to the art and science of storytelling for mobile applications. In small rotating groups we developed four historical short stories on the Neude, with a focus on engagement.