Chronicling Antiquity in the Digital Age: An Interview With the Founders of Ancient History Encyclopedia

AHE logoAncient History Encyclopedia (AHE) describes itself as a “small non-profit organization dedicated to giving highest-quality history content to the world’s history enthusiasts, teachers, and students for free.”[1] Lofty ideals indeed. But in this world of constant distraction and mind-numbing overload, how many people really care about lives long past? Turns out quite a few. Since its founding in 2009, Ancient History Encyclopedia has become the global leader in ancient history content online, attracting more monthly traffic than the British Museum or the Louvre. It’s secret? Find out below in our exclusive interview with AHE Founder and CEO Jan van der Crabben and Co-founder and Communications Director James Blake Wiener.

AN: Why did you create Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE)? Why an encyclopedia?

JC: I got the idea to start AHE in 2008, when I was researching for a historical strategy computer game in the Total War series. I realized how little reliable information was out there, except for academic websites that were nearly unreadable. Wikipedia provided very little information about ancient history at the time. Things have improved now, but we came at the right time and filled a gap — the fruits of which we’re now harvesting.

JW: I think the digital humanities movement is here to stay, so an interactive encyclopedia with vibrant multimedia offerings has been a worthwhile investment of time and energy.

AN: Can you talk about your early hopes and expectations for the site? How have they been realized? Any surprises?

JC: First of all, AHE has surpassed all our expectations! When I started working on the site in 2008, I had no idea that it would grow this big. I thought it would be a niche website that I’m running just because I’m passionate about history. We started out with a handful of visitors a day… We’re now the biggest ancient history website on the internet with nearly two million unique visitors every month! We’re all super proud to be working on this project with so many excellent people on our team.

The biggest surprise came in late 2013: Google changed its search algorithm to Hummingbird, and our traffic went from 5,000 per day to about 25,000 per day in less than two weeks. Clearly, we were “playing by the rules” of providing high-quality unique content, and Google appreciated that.

Another surprise came last year, when we did some audience research: We surveyed all our visitors about how they use AHE. It turns out that a lot of high school world history teachers actually use our site to learn about antiquity themselves! I guess you can’t expect every world history teacher to be an expert in ancient history?

JW:  I’ll continue along Jan’s line of thought and add that I think the biggest surprise for me is the fact that the “typical” user of AHE is neither a scholar nor a student. When I first began working and contributing to AHE, I thought this would be the case. In actuality, the typical user of AHE is someone we like to call a “history enthusiast.” They come from all walks of life and every country in the world, but they are all united by a shared interest in ancient history.

Helping manage and co-found Ancient History Encyclopedia (AHE) has been the adventure of a lifetime. I never thought that AHE would gain the traction and following that it has. It’s been most satisfying to work with a team of passionate professionals while at AHE. As AHE’s core team is dispersed across the world, I love the “international” flavor of my work. I should add too that I’ve made some very fulfilling friendships with curators, researchers, novelists and archaeologists through my work. This has added color to my life.

AN: A) Jan, you have a journalism background. How does that inform your involvement with AHE? B) James, how has your public relations and marketing background help AHE build a following?

JC: My journalism background really helped when launching the site. I was the site’s first editor, and my journalistic editing shaped the style of writing that is now standard on AHE. We source excellent academic research that is hidden away either in expensive books or in overly complex journals. We then take that and turn it into reasonably concise definitions, using clear language that everyone can understand, without compromising on the quality of the information. Essentially, it’s academic-level quality of content using easy-to-read writing.

I’m now no longer involved with editing unless absolutely required, leaving this to far more qualified team members than myself, but the original vision is definitely still there. As CEO, I now almost exclusively focus on the business side of things.

JW: I always thought that I would become a professor and spend my life in academia. I entered the classroom at a time when a perfect storm of unparalleled crises reached its crescendo in 2009; budget deficits, spending cuts, and the fact that students began to question the cost of a college education made teaching very difficult. Just before I began teaching college-level history, I completed an internship at a local literacy council. One of my best friends — a public relations executive in New York City — encouraged me to undertake the internship before teaching. I’m so glad that I took her advice! I found my work at the literacy council to be exceptionally rewarding, and it changed how I saw the business world and nonprofit sector alike. I felt excited and invigorated by working on various projects and socializing with new people on a daily basis; liaising with different types of people on concurrent projects allowed me to channel new energies and develop new talents. I enjoyed proposing, solidifying and maintaining business relationships with international colleagues and associates in particular.

When I left academia in 2011, I applied what I knew from inside and outside the classroom to AHE’s benefit. I suppose that “media relations” best describes what I do for AHE although I do like to add a very “human” touch to my press releases and media endeavors. I took several psychology and sociology courses while at NYU, and they helped tremendously when it comes to outreach via social media and handling public relations projects. Truth be told, Jan is really the master of marketing! I remember discussing some marketing techniques with Jan during a Skype call, and he told me that I needed to “get mental with pizzazz.” You have to know how to convey complex messages that are engaging and substantive to succeed in public relations. This is true whatever the business or communications objective.

The world of digital media is fresh, exciting and challenging, but it has to be approached with care and sensitivity, too. Through careful study and planning in coordination with AHE’s editorial team, I was able to create a potent social media presence of over 300K+ followers across multiple channels. (AHE uses Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Flipboard, Tumblr and Instagram on a regular basis.) If I could distill everything into a basic recipe, I would say the key to AHE’s success in communications stems from the fact that we offer a visually attractive and intellectually engaging product: AHE is an interactive website in which there is something for everyone. This is why people keep coming back.

AN: An ongoing issue for those organizations focusing on ancient history is the looting and destruction of sites. In what ways do you think AHE promotes cultural preservation?

JC: The preservation of sites destroyed and looted by ISIS is something we care very much about, but at the same time we feel powerless. Yes, we certainly highlight these sites, and we increase people’s understanding of the shared cultural heritage that is under threat, but that certainly doesn’t stop ISIS. We’re a non-political, non-religious organization and we always strive to remain neutral and objective… but in the case of ISIS, we simply have to speak out against them!

The only thing that can stop looting is troops on the ground. Unfortunately, with the notable exception of the Kurdish Peshmerga forces, very few countries in the world are willing to risk lives protecting “old stones.” On the one hand, it’s understandable, but on the other hand we’re losing far more than just a few stones, we’re losing symbols of our civilization, symbols of the things that connect us all to a shared past. Palmyra, the melting-pot of Greco-Roman, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Levantine civilizations represents everything that ISIS hates: cultural exchange and cooperation.

JW: It’s been an especially tough time for those of us invested in the protection and promotion of cultural heritage. As an Arabist and world historian by training, it’s been particularly devastating for me to see what has transpired in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. I feel as though I have been in mourning for quite some time now.

I always tell people that artifacts don’t have a voice, so we need to use our own to give them another means of expression. Cultural patrimony shouldn’t be taken for granted, and I’m gratified that AHE has provided an avenue for everyday people to explore ancient history through a globalist lens. I strongly believe that the key to preventing looting and promoting cultural heritage lies in a lucid explanation of why the past is important, and of how it still informs so many aspect of lives even in a post-modernist reality. Unless this is taught at home and in our schools, many won’t care.

AN: What is the relevance today of looking to the ancient past? Why should people care about what happened thousands of years ago?

JC: As I suggested above, the past determines who we are in more ways than is obvious. Our modern ideas of nation-states are ridiculous when seen through the lens of ancient history. For example, Germany and France, two major European nations who’ve been at war repeatedly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, both share the same “founding father” in Charlemagne; both nations have the same roots. European civilization is massively influenced by Mesopotamian civilization, as is Islamic civilization. The list is endless!

To those who are fully aware of the shared history between nations and cultures, the idea of nationalism, xenophobia and racism is ridiculous. We’re all connected, mixed, and there are no black or white lines between nationality, race and even culture! The more people we make aware of our common history, the fewer people will revert to dangerous xenophobic patterns of thought and behavior.

JW: William Faulkner put it best when he wrote in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is why I think people are so drawn to the past, and why they ought to care about how we access and study it.

Furthermore, we’ve barely scratched the surface, and the study of history is an exciting area of inquiry given the new technologies, which are rapidly becoming available to researchers and scholars. So many fields and subfields are growing, and new ones will emerge.

AN: What’s in the future for AHE?

JC: Our future is, of course, wide open. We’re still near the starting point for AHE, as we haven’t completed our ancient history encyclopedia, by far. Our coverage of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and Mesoamerica is good but still lacking, northern Europe is a patchwork, we’re just starting to tackle India, and we’ve yet to work on Africa, Oceania,and the East Asia. There’s so much to do!

In the long term, we intend to move beyond antiquity and cover all of history. We believe that one day we’ll be the go-to website for history information in general, and we’ll replacing or at least complement textbooks in schools and universities. It’ll take time, of course, but it never hurts to set lofty goals.

JW: I’m very excited and energized when contemplating AHE’s future. We’re in talks with some very talented companies and organizations with many ideas, so you’ll just have to keep coming to the site to see what we unveil in the next couple of months. I would remind readers to note that we’re always open for business! We like fresh ideas and new ways of reframing the ways in which history can be understood and approached.


Jan van der CrabbenJan van der Crabben is the founder, CEO, lead programmer and editor-in-chief of Ancient History Encyclopedia. He’s had a passion for ancient history for over a decade, ever since reading Herodotus after school.

With a background in journalism, war studies and self-taught programming, Jan decided to start Ancient History Encyclopedia after his first ancient-related project, The Ancient Mediterranean Mod for Civilization III & IV became popular. It all started with a searchable and tagged timeline, and the rest is history.

 

james blake weinerJames Blake Wiener is a Co-founder and Communications Director at the Ancient History Encyclopedia. Trained as a historian and researcher, and previously a professor, James is a writer, editor and public relations professional who is interested in cross-cultural exchange, world history and international relations. Committed to fostering increased awareness of the ancient world — while still retaining his medievalist, early modernist and Arabist tendencies — James is dedicated to excellence in journalism and research. Previously, he co-hosted the “Florida Caribe Show” on WSLR 96.5 FM in Florida, and his greatest passions are travel and translation.

[1] http://www.ancient.eu/static/about/

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