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NEH Awards DH Advancement Grant to Triplett and Stern

January 21, 2020

Co-directors Edward Triplett and Philip Stern received a $99,339 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) last Tuesday. The grant will be used to advance their project, “The Sandcastle Workflow: A Malleable System for Visualizing Pre-Modern Maps and Views.”

The NEH announced $30.9 million to support 188 humanities projects and an additional $48 million for community programs at state councils. Triplett’s project was one of 14 projects to receive a digital humanities advancement grant.

Triplett says the decision to apply for the NEH Office of Digital Humanities (ODH) grant originally grew out of his and Stern’s mutual interests in premodern maps and views, and in experimenting with new ways of analyzing them. The Sandcastle Workflow emerged through Triplett’s Wired Lab project which has been mapping and modeling fortresses and landscapes that appear in a 16th-century Portuguese volume of drawings known as the “Livro das Fortalezas” (or Book of Fortresses). The purpose of the NEH funding is to refine the methods begun in the Book of Fortresses project and make them available to other scholars studying similar images that cannot be georeferenced on top of a modern map.

Triplett and Stern agree that most mapping tools are strict and logical, and don’t account for the ambiguity and messiness of humanities’ resources. Triplett says this is why he and Stern decided to use the Book of Fortresses project to “streamline the process of deconstructing and reassembling these place-based images in a more malleable environment – one where the ‘control’ in our experiment was not a modern basemap.” This is where the title “Sandcastle Workflow” name came from — the unbridled malleability of sand, as well as Triplett’s research on medieval and early modern castles

“I have been working on archaeological reconstruction, HGIS, and other 3D geospatial projects for a long time, and I have wanted to head a project like this since I was in graduate school, so this is a very exciting time for me,” Triplett said. “I know Phil shares that excitement as well.” 

Stern is Gilhuly Family professor in the History Department. He is currently working on projects related to the British Empire. 

Triplett is a Lecturing Fellow in the Department of Art, Art History & Visual Studies. In 2015 he joined the Wired! Lab for Digital Art History as a CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow and has been teaching courses in GIS mapping for historical subjects the design of Medieval castles, monasteries and cathedrals.

“I have had a team of 4-5 students, some of whom graduated last year, working on Fridays at the lab over the last two and a half years, and we have really done a lot with the time and money at our disposal,” Triplett said. Current student researchers working with Triplett include Daniel Castro, Cyan DeVeaux, Hillman Han, and Audrey Magnuson.

While the Sandcastle Workflow will focus more strictly on the arguments and spatial practices embedded in premodern maps and views, the Book of Fortresses project will continue to also gather dense 3D of the fortresses in its original source. With the help of Tim Senior, independent scholar and long-time Wired! Lab affiliate, and former student Stone Mathers, Triplett has spent parts of the summer in 2018 and 2019 traveling in Portugal and gathering this data through a process called photogrammetry.

“Thanks to financial assistance from the Digital Humanities Initiative at Duke headed by my colleague Victoria Szabo, we purchased a small drone with a mounted camera that we flew over the castles last June and July and ended up with some fantastic 3D data that has helped us compare the drawings in the Book of Fortresses to the architectural remains of the sites,” Triplett said. This data will be added into the Unity3D game engine as a way of pushing the Sandcastle Workflow forward, and a “point-cloud” version of the data can be seen on the project website at

“The Sandcastle Workflow is the methodology we are pushing forward with help from the NEH, but there is an even larger related effort to put these methods into practice right away,” Triplett said. “We also recently received funding from Bass Connections that has allowed us to create a project-based course around this subject next year, and we are currently recruiting for a summer Data+ team to help build a dataset from additional maps and views that will feed into the Bass Connections project.”