A return to digital Helfta?

I found out just the other day that I have been accepted to participate in a Digital Humanities Summer Institute on Advanced Challenges in Theory and Practice in 3D Modeling of Cultural Heritage Sites at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst in June 2015. The institute coincides with a project that I have been meaning to get back to for a long time.

Back in 2004, one of my very first ideas for a 3D project had nothing to do with language learning (what I eventually did with the DigiBahn Project) but rather with learning history. My dissertation in graduate school was on the medieval German mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg, and it was through my reading of her text I first became aware of St. Mary’s of Helfta. The convent was destroyed twice in its history (1342 and in 1524, during the German Peasant’s War), before it was ultimately secularized in 1545 and eventually fell into decay. The ruins were even used as stables and garages for an East German fruit farm in the 1950s. Only recently has the convent been rebuilt and nuns have returned.


Ruins of old Helfta on a 19th century postcard


View of the lake on 19th century postcard

Although the convent has been rebuilt and some of the medieval ruins restored, including the chapel, I wondered what the original convent looked like and how this physical space structured the daily lives of the medieval nuns who lived there, including Mechthild of Magdeburg. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, to reconstruct the buildings as 3D models in Blender and then attempt to create a historically accurate simulation with a game engine such as OGRE 3D? Although, this time around, I would use Blender and Unity. Eager to get the simulation off the ground, I started trying my hand at learning 3D modeling in Blender and constructing some models based on drawings of medieval pottery artifacts found at Tyler Hill:


Recreation of medieval jug in Blender


Drawing on which the digital model was based

Restoration work was begun on Helfta in 1998, and through a web search I was lucky enough to find the addresses of both the architecture firm that did the restoration work, as well as the names of the archaeologists who did excavation work at the site. Maas und Partner was kind enough to provide me with a CD detailing all the restoration plans, as well as a map of the site.


Plan of site excavation 1999/2000

Helfta relics from an earlier excavation

Helfta relics from an earlier excavation


Site plan of the Helfta renovations.


Master plan for the Helfta renovations. Where have all the medieval spaces gone?

Anyway, I’m looking forward to the institute and have already started looking for potential contacts and partners around Germany. According to this article and this one, excavations at Helfta and in the immediate area are ongoing. It certainly seems like time to revisit this project again and, hopefully, make a digital Helfta.

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