Fire, Destruction, And War: Bowdoin's Newest Interactive Scroll

Story posted June 30, 2010

Professor of History and Asian Studies Thomas Conlan has brought ancient Japanese history to life again with a new interactive 13th century picture scroll.

heiji-still.jpg
This partial screen capture of Conlan's interactive Heiji scroll shows just one of many possible magnified details from the 13th century work.

Night Attack on the Sanjo Palace from the Illustrated Scrolls of the Events of the Heiji Era lets online viewers navigate inside a masterpiece of "Yamato" style painting, which depicts attacking warriors, raging fire, even a wayward bystander being crushed by an ox cart.

Completed by a court artist in the thirteenth century, this scene from the Heiji scrolls is an early and valuable source for reconstructing the warrior culture of Japan. The scene appearing on the Conlan's latest interactive site is the property of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and provides a rare and valuable depiction of early Japanese armor.

"The internet allows for ancient sources to be disseminated and understood in ways that are impossible to know through books," says Conlan, who is a leading expert on medieval Japanese history and warfare.

"Likewise," he adds, "One can sometimes see elements of the scrolls through high quality digital images that are not so easily discerned from viewing the original. There is a section that depicts rising smoke from the palace, and nearby the underlying sketch of the artist is visible, but I could not figure this out when viewing the actual scrolls, but it is clear when seeing the images."

The interactive scroll is an excellent tutorial into how to read Japanese scrolls, which read from right to left. Conlan's translations and notes appear discreetly throughout the scroll, as viewers zoom in and out on scenes and specific objects. Technology for navigating the online version of the scrolls was developed by Bowdoin Associate Director of Communications for Production and Multimedia Kevin Travers.

Visit the Heiji scroll site.


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