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Professor Receives NEH Support for Ongoing Norman Sicily Project

Digital database documents historical Sicilian monuments

Posted in: Humanities and Social Sciences, Research, University

Norman architecture in Sicily

For a century after the Norman Conquest of Sicily (1061-1091), the Italian island flourished. “Under the Normans, Sicily was at the height of its power,” says Montclair State University Associate Professor of History Dawn Marie Hayes. “The Norman period was an incredible time – and one that produced an extraordinary culture.” To this day, the Sicilian landscape is dotted with hundreds of monuments – from castles to monasteries – built during Norman rule.

Hayes has recently received a nearly $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Humanities Collections and Reference Resources (HCRR) grant for her project, “Documenting the Past, Triaging the Present and Assessing the Future: A Prototype for Sicily’s Norman Heritage, ca. 1061-1194.” The award supports Hayes’ Norman Sicily Project – an ongoing digital archival compilation of Sicilian monuments begun by Hayes and her husband, Joe, who is a software engineer in the private sector.

While he will serve as the new project’s chief technical architect, the University’s acting Earth and Environmental Studies Chair Greg Pope is the project’s co-director.

The one-year grant supports a pilot phase that will produce an online prototype that documents the 147 monasteries known to have been built between 1061 and 1194.  The team will provide historical and site-specific data for all of the monasteries, as well as photographic and video documentation and relevant genealogical data for the 52 surviving structures.

For historian Hayes, the project has special significance. “It’s important because it calls attention to a special society that was culturally rich – one where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived side-by-side in relative harmony and where a fascinating cultural fusion occurred over a century or so.”

According to Hayes, while the project is rooted in medieval history, it also draws on 21st-Century STEM disciplines. “The Norman Sicily Project represents a society from almost a millennium ago via cutting-edge technologies that will be connected to other data sets on the web,” she says.

It also has a sustainability component that will be guided by Pope. “We’ll enter information from field visits, seismic data and, whenever possible, results from on-site sustainability assessments of the conditions of the monuments’ stones and the greatest environmental threats to their survival,” Hayes explains.

Hayes looks forward to beginning work on the project in September. “We’re not just exploring these monuments as relics of a past age; we’re also assessing their ability to endure climactic, geologic, seismic and – in some cases – volcanic threats.”