Unlocking the Colonial Archive: Harnessing Artificial Intelligence for Indigenous and Spanish American Historical Collections

Lead Research Organisation: Lancaster University
Department Name: History


The Spanish empire controlled the vast majority of the western hemisphere's lands and peoples for more than three centuries. Its vast administration in the Americas depended on the work of royal notaries, Indigenous artists, and printers. They produced prodigious amounts of documents, written or printed on paper, which fill archives and libraries today. Despite the extensive documentation, present-day understanding of the Spanish colonial enterprise is fragmentary. Once the initial barrier of archival access has been overcome, scholars and other publics then must decipher archaic penmanship, obscure writing conventions, and unfamiliar Indigenous imagery. This project seeks to lower these barriers by introducing artificial intelligence (AI) technologies into representative Indigenous and Spanish colonial archives in Mexico and the U.S., and training them to convert the "unreadable" archive into worldwide accessible data. The project has the potential to revolutionize how cultural institutions provide access to their colonial collections and how humanities researchers can undertake cutting-edge digital scholarship.

In a highly interdisciplinary collaboration between archaeologists, historians, web scientists, designers, and computer scientists, the "Unlocking the Colonial Archive" project will create a step-change in the way a broad spectrum of researchers and the public engage with and use countless early modern Indigenous and Spanish collections dispersed throughout the world. Using machine learning and the exceptional collections of the LLILAS Benson library (US) and the General Archive of the Nation (Mexico), the project will tackle three challenges in interconnected research areas to: (a) accomplish the automated transcription of 16th- and 17th-century historical colonial documents that combine Spanish with Indigenous languages such as Nahuatl, Mixtec, Huastec, and Otomi, among others; (b) develop methods to carry out text mining in large historical collections; and (c) develop techniques to facilitate the automated identification of iconographic and other pictorial features in Indigenous maps and printed books.

The development of such approaches will not only facilitate the searching, retrieval, and reading of these materials, but will also transform the accessibility and analysis of large textual and image collections. With a strong commitment to a decolonial approach, both in terms of archival practices and in the critical use of technologies, the project will create freely available, enhanced open digital collections. As such, "Unlocking the Colonial Archive" will work in close partnership with Mexican, UK, US, Portuguese, and Spanish researchers and institutions, training scholars and interested members of the public on transferable skills and digital methods, and it will produce innovative, reproducible workflows that Latin American scholars and cultural institutions around the world can adopt and implement.


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