Paperless thesis transports past into a potential future

January 8, 1999

The subject was ancient, the style postmodern. Cornelius Holtorf gained his archaeology PhD from the University of Wales, Lampeter with a paperless thesis presented on a CD-Rom. He chose his medium carefully for the message he intended to convey.

Dr Holtorf is interested in how ancient people interpreted monuments which were at the time already ancient. "It is about how societies make use of the past and how it becomes a part of each present and serves a function in it," he said. He chose richly-linked hypermedia rather than the traditional linear text because "interpretation, or giving meaning to something, functions by making connections".

One way or another, the people of five millennia are involved in this research. Make that six. Born in Germany in 1968, Dr Holtorf is a child of the second millennium AD, and if he puts his thesis on the web, it will grow organically past the year 2000 by the accumulation of readers' comments.

The story begins, however, in the fourth and third millennia BC when the neolithic people of North Germany built burial mounds, and built them to last. Dr Holtorf used later archaeological evidence to investigate what the monuments meant to people in the first millennium BC and the first AD, when the culture and beliefs of their builders were long forgotten.

He says it took a year and a half to get the University of Wales to accept his request to submit a thesis on CD-Rom. The university accepted his request on condition that neither the examiners nor the library objected.

"The examiners in the end were very supportive," Dr Holtorf said. "They managed to read it the way it was conceived to be read. They liked it a lot and actually encouraged me in some ways to be more radical than I was."

The library "needed something physical to put on their shelf" and was satisfied with a shiny disc.

Dr Holtorf has now taken up a one-year post as a visiting researcher at Gothenberg University in Sweden. He hopes to publish his thesis as a combination of book and website, allowing readers to add their interpretations of his interpretation of how ancient people interpreted still more ancient tombs. We could be looking at the future of the past, here.

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