The reports themselves can be downloaded below.
Last week I was in Athens organized by the DARIAH project entitled ‘Scholarly activity and information process’
This was principally about understanding the processes of research that an e-infrastructure – whatever that might be – underpins and supports. Numerous perspectives emerged on how such a process might be conceptualized; but I think what emerged as the common theme was definition, and how we define the things we are talking about. For example, a starting point for much of the workshop was John Unsworth’s conception of the ‘scholarly primitive’; building blocks of research which, in a 2000 paper, he defined as ‘Discovering, Annotating, Comparing, Referring, Sampling, Illustrating and Representing‘. Seamus Ross’s critique of this however conceived of these more as processes; whereas a primitive should be seen as something which engages more fundamentally with generating knowledge from ‘primary data’ (itself a thing which used to have a widely accepted definition but, I would suggest, is much harder to pin down in the digital age). One example he gave was ‘question forming’ – which, of course, is not a primitive aspect of research that is confined to the digital milieu. Simon Mahony from UCL developed this idea with a perspective on the titles of projects his students come up with – which rarely include an actual question, which defines how the work they will do will bring new perspectives.
For me, it was interesting that this question of ‘what is the building block of [digital] humanities research’ reflects so closely the discussion in the last year or so on e-science fundamentals. Both areas – digital humanities and e-science – I think, share a implicit desire to show that they are fully professionalized academic disciplines, which I have no problem with (despite my own suspicion that academic disciplines are themselves basically nineteenth century concoctions to make Oxbridge colleges look tidier). But the problem is always one of language and description. This also applies to research methods, as well as object of research. César González-Pérez’s very interesting presentation on methods, for example, introduced the idea of the ‘method fragment’, a particular way of approaching or manipulating information, which can be defined consistently, and linked to others in a non-linear way to describe an overarching workflow. (The non-linear bit is, I think, crucial). This agrees well with the position set out in a forthcoming paper in the proceedings of AHM2009 by myself, Sheila Anderson and Tobias Blanke, which utilizes Short and McCarty’s famous ‘Methodological Commons’ for the digital humanities. However, again we come back to the problem of definition and language. It is convenient and logical for us, as developers and providers of a research e-infrastructure, to conceive of the research process in such a way, but we also have to remember that an historian about to embark on a research project does not go to their bookshelf, take down the Big Bumper Book of History Research Methods, select one, and stick to it for two years. Even if such a book existed, and if it were fully comprehensive, footnoted, agreed by the history research community (the economic history community? Or political history? Or social history? Since when have academics every agreed about such things anyway?), they would select, choose, modify, ignore, change, make it up as they go along… and if an e-infrastructure gets in the way of that, it is doomed. I was also glad to have the opportunity to get off my chest a problem I have with the word ‘tool’ to describe a software application, interface etc… a hammer is not likely to give me ideas and thoughts on better and better ways to knock in nails. However, a piece of research software might – if it is any good – give me pause to think about how I approach data, and to think computationally about the knowledge I could generate by analyzing it. As Alexandra Bounia made brilliantly clear in her presentation – which invited us to think what research we would do if we were putting together a museum exhibition, and how we would do it and why – we are talking here about a whole lot more than acquiring, storing and distributing data. An obvious point maybe, but one that is too important not to be made explicitly in such discussions.
Digital Classicist 2010 summer seminar programme
Institute of Classical Studies
Meetings are on Fridays at 16:30 in room STB9 (Stewart House) Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU
Seminars will be followed by refreshments
(RPS Group) Towards a National Inventory for Libyan Archaeology
a scholarly genre.
Tool for the Automatic Extraction of Canonical References
For Cultural Heritage Artefacts
Françoise Rutland (World Museum Liverpool) Non-contact 3D laser scanning as a tool to aid identification and interpretation of archaeological artefacts: the case of a Middle Bronze Age Hittite Dice
Research Environments: a case study from the Humanities
Fragmentary Texts and Digital Collections of Fragmentary Authors
Mediates Meaning: Exploring the artefactuality of writing utilising qualitative data analysis software
features: manuscripts tracing on the net
For more information on individual seminars and updates on the
programme, see http://www.digitalclassicist.org/wip/
The workshop bought out many fascinating aspects of Libyan archaeology. As well as contributions from Libyan colleagues, presenters including Paul Bennett, Will Wootton from KCL, and Chris Blandford, who is preparing a World Heritage Management Plan for Cyrene. Also from KCL, Charlotte Roueche and Hafed Walda launched the Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania and Inscriptions of Roman Cyrenaica websites. These a digital repositories of the corpora of inscriptions, gathered in Libya the 1950s by Joyce Reynolds, with the inscriptions marked up in EpiDoc XML What is most significant about these is that by using EpiDoc and describing the information within them using this standard, they provide the core for future work that others can build on in the digital sphere. It strikes me – a notion only reinforced by conversations with others here, including Charlotte, Hafed and Will – that the majority of the challenges will be non-technical. In the humanities we see publication as the final, finished thing (a view constantly reinforced by those in charge of pay, promotion and tenure), yet one of the most interesting aspects of the kind of work we do lies somewhere in between doing interpretive research and publishing it. How do we represent the interpretive process in the publication, while preserving its integrity and authority? This question is absolutely fundamental if we to get meaningful knowledge by applying computational approaches in the humanities. And it seems rather beautifully ironic that it should arise so prominently and urgently in the field of epigraphy – inscriptions would seem to be the ultimate ‘final publication’, but hey are not: walking round Leptis and Sabratha for the first time bought home the re-use and re-contextialization that an inscription can undergo before it comes to our attention, but before it was ‘published’ – it can be altered, erased, the block it is inscribed on used for something else entirely and so on. And the use of EpiDoc shows that we can continue building knowledge about them and their associations long after they have been deciphered, translated and pinpointed on the map.
This week has seen some extraordinary events here in Tripoli, at the centre of which are three extraordinary people: Ken Oliver, Jeanne Hugo and Liz Barnett. In the last few years, these three have come to possess artefacts from Libya’s Roman past of great historical value. The appropriate time having arrived, all three have taken the decision – some would say it is a momentous one – to return these objects to their original location in Libya. Various news media have picked up on this including the BBC, and no doubt others have followed suit. Some years of negotiation and logistical planning have led up to this week’s handover of the artefacts to the Libyan authorities in Tripoli, supported by numerous people and organizations both in the UK and in Libya. The handover itself was marked last week by a ceremony in the Museum of Libya presided over by Mr. Saleh A. Abdalah, the Chairman of the Department of Antiquities. This was followed by an exhibition of the artefacts in the Museum’s soaring atrium, and a day-long archaeological workshop to which I and others from KCL contributed.
The artefacts include the ‘Belgammel Ram’, which was returned by Ken. It is a bronze alloy battering ram from the prow of an ancient warship, found on the seabed near the mouth of the Wadi Belgammel (‘River of Lice’) in the 1960s. The ram is a magnificent, beautiful piece of metalwork engineering: one can readily see how it must have captured the imagination when it was discovered. Extensive scientific analysis was carried out on it in the UK prior to its return to Tripoli, and the ceremony included the presentation of reports on this work to Mr. Abdalah by Paul Bennett of the Society for Libyan Studies.
The other artefacts, mainly domestic objects, are being returned by Liz and Jeanne, whose family have owned them since the 1950s when their father was a headmaster at a British army base in Libya. They include an assemblage of coins, mainly from the Christian period, but with at least five Islamic examples, some fragments of Roman glass including a blown flask with a separately attached neck and handle, terracotta figurines including two wrestlers, a gaming counter, miscellaneous beads, several small oil lamps, a larger lamp in the shape of a follower of Bacchus, and several chunks of floor plaster with mosaics attached. All of these will now go the the museum at Leptis Magna, the site from whence they originally came.
The Museum of Tripoli itself is well worth a visit – we had a chance for a good look round in the hours before the ceremony – housed in a palatial building of the early twentieth century. It comprises two floors beneath three great polychrome domes, blue and white glass on the inside, blinding gold on the outside. Outside on the street, posters proclaimed the return of the artefacts. The collection is a varied cross-section of Libyan society and history, starting logically enough with a prehistoric room, proceeding chronologically across two floors to rooms devoted to contemporary Libya, and also to its future. Whole rooms on the ground floor given to Leptis Magna and Sabratha, with statuary the main focus. Interesting to be reminded of the contrast between the solid soldier forms, and the more feminine draped figures… the old Mars and Venus thing, I guess. Much use is made of The Digital in this museum. Interactive 3D displays, some of them based on projecting lasers into vapour, monophonic chambers where you can stand under a sort of plastic umbrella and be the sole audience of a commentary (in Arabic) of the display in front of you, and a CAVE-live room with a floor on to which is projected an image of water, which moves as you walk across it. Very nice.
The ceremony with which the artefacts were received this week, and the many conversations we have had about them, has given us a chance to reflect on the whole vexed issue of the return of cultural and archaeological objects to their ‘source countries’. Outside Libya, objects are detached from their human and cultural contexts. There must be many people out there – Libyans and non-Libyans – who have come to own such artefacts over the years. Hopefully this week’s events will raise wider awareness that there is both a practical model and a powerful intellectual argument for their return to Libya, and their public display there.
Have just been to the British Library’s exhibition Magnificent maps: power, propaganda and art. This fantastic, beautifully curated, must-see exhibition traces the history of the map as an object of the projection of (mainly colonial) power. This can be either direct and intimidating – Besson’s 1709 “‘L’Etat du Duc de Savoy de ca et de la des Monts, for example, is a blunt statement of the consequences for the Duke of Savoy should he continue to resist French power in the region. But other details hint at how maps can reflect tensions in the thinking of the times. Fra Mauro’s 1448 Mappa Mundi is noteworthy because, having carefully surveyed all available knowledge on the subject, Fra Mauro concluded that, on balance, the Garden of Eden could not be cartographically represented as a place on Earth, so he detached it and placed it separately in the bottom right hand corner. One wonders if a taxonomy of such challenges to conventional thinking in cartography over the ages could be developed. Fascinating too are the more human stories — one can surely see the verdant plans of seventeenth century landowner’s domains as talking points over the fireplace to impress visiting neighbouring lords of the manor. The Sheldon tapestry map of Oxfordshire is a particularly good example. One can tell, from the way that all possible topnyms have been included, at the expense of all else that this is basically a visual inventory of possessions. It brought to mind, tangentially at least, the way that multinational corporations flex their muscles by listing/flaunting all the places they do business.
Splashed out on the excellent exhibition guide in the BL bookshop, but resisted the temptation to buy a £3700 atlas.
This week I’ve been at a seminar at the British Academy, E-Research on Text and Images, organized by the e-Science for the Study of Ancient Documents project at Oxford’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. This project focuses on a collaboration between medical image processing and papyrology. The principle is relatively straightforward: the Roman texts that the project is studying – the Vindolanda writing tablets – are very imperfectly preserved, either as inkstrokes on the original material, or as incisions left on wooden writing tablets originally covered by wax, which was written on with a stylus. Images of these surfaces can be captured using steroscopic imaging, which systematically compares the lighting from different angles, thus showing up inconsistencies in the surface that might otherwise be invisible. Project postoc Segolene Tarte outlined the approach in her paper, stressing that this was a formal technical way of supporting the kind of thing that papyrologists would do anyway without recourse to technology. Good examples were given of how this approach can lead to different interpretations of individual words, which can have significant impact on the overall interpretation of the text – one key example being the ‘Frisian Ox Sale’, where imaging supported a re-reading of a word previously interpreted as ‘BOVEM’ in fact read ‘QUEM’. This casts in to doubt the document’s overall identification as a bill of sale for an ox (see Bowman et. al.’s paper). Next up, Simon Tanner of CCH presented work in his involvement with the Dead Sea Scrolls digitization project. This gave an interesting perspective on how documents are treated once they recovered. The noble aspirations of the Israel Antiquities Authority to make the Scrolls visible to the wider public came inevitably unstuck in places, due to imperfect understanding of conservation practices in the 1950s but more so perhaps because of the rather unsystematic way in which the fragments of scrolls were classified and grouped at the time. This raised an issue which emerged as one of overarching importance: that it is essential to document what we are doing, why we do it, and when we did it.
Documentation of process is critical not only to the integrity of conservation – which is too often, I think, seen as a purely physical activity – but as we enter deeper engagement between the humanities and digital technologies, it becomes a central part of the intellectual process too. Melissa Terras and Henriette Rouede-Cunliffe picked up on this in their presentations on formal models of reading papyri and supporting and documenting decision making processes. A comment from the floor made the point that, historically learned institutions like the Royal Society call their publications ‘Transactions’ or ‘Proceedings’; which reflect intellectual processes and the exchange of knowledge, rather than the kind of ‘here is my final scholarly outcome which will go in the library and stay there forever’ that the current reward, credit and funding systems in the humanities require of us. This led to a substantial last-minute rewriting of my own presentation on the following day, which tried to make the point that reconstruction of cultural heritage sites (and indeed artefacts) have in the past been consciously constructed ‘finished’ entities, often with their own intellectual and/or political messages. However, I suspect that technology may be presenting us with certain opportunities to begin to express and encode the processes that lead us to reconstruct sites in different ways. One of these opportunities lies in motion capture, and the recording of present-day spatiality. Robert Shoemaker‘s paper immediately before mine focused on linking and integrating textual material, including material from the Old Bailey Online project. Whilst such texts may not face the kind of physical or conservational problems that payprologists face with material such as Vindolanda, this was a nice reminder that reading a text can mean many different things, and that quantitative understanding of the reading process is often the key to understanding the text itself. Of course all of this needs e-Infrastructure. The papers of Dot Porter on the TILE project, and John Pybus on Oxford’s BVREH work both set out different approaches of how virtual research environments can support this kind of work.
Oxford’s Mike Brady – Co-I of eSAD, and an expert of medical imaging – summed it all up nicely when he noted that the Two Cultures of CP Snow should be rejected, and that the humanities and sciences face exactly the same kind of linear, interpretive problems. The challenge is how we document the processes that lead us to the answers.