Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Greece (is the Time, is the Place, is the Motion)

It turns out The Bee Gees were right. We've wrapped up work (for now) on Greek early geographic documents and the experience has made it clear that time, place and motion do indeed feature heavily.

First a few statistics. Our objective - as always - has been to identify sources for as many documents as we could, both in the original Greek and in modern translation. Wherever possible we have used open access, online materials so that people can access the texts and read them for themselves. This time we have identified some 66 works, of which we were able to obtain digital texts for 42 of them (and 8 in both languages). You can see our list of available texts on the Recogito public site and we’d be very happy to hear any suggestions for working with those texts which are still missing. Pau has been working like Greased Lightning over these long Summer Nights to produce a remarkable 48,000 edits (and counting)!

Pau has not been alone in this work either. We’ll talk more about the new Recogito Editors group in a future blog post, but for now we’d like to say an especially big thank you to Brady Kiesling who donated a large number of pre-annotated texts from his wonderful ToposText project, and even did some translation to boot. Shout-outs also go to Bruce Robertson, Greta Franzini and Monica Berti for their help in OCR’ing Greek geographic texts.

Thanks to Rainer’s hard work, the Recogito interface is really starting to shape up. Not only are new features such as detailed user- and document-stats being added regularly, but there’s now a tutorial for users, and various small enhancements were made to the front page (e.g. temporal ordering of documents, so that you can start to see the development of ancient geography at a glance). There are other major changes afoot for our third Content Workpackage on the early Christian tradition… but you’ll have to wait for another blog post to hear more about that.

Just like last time, we’ve generated a preliminary heatmap of our work on the Greek sources so far. Even incomplete as it is, it’s fascinating to see our authors focus not only on the Aegean Sea, Magna Graecia and the Black Sea, but also their explorations along the Red Sea, the Atlantic and even the Silk Road. 

So what about those sources? The list of documents we’ve been working with includes some of the biggest and most important in the history of geography, including Strabo, Herodotus and the immense Suda. We said that Greece was the place, but in fact what we are really talking about, and what emerges from these early investigations, is just how many places the "Greek world" comprises of and how many places "Greek knowledge" extends to. Time also plays an essential role. From Ptolemy’s "Hour Intervals", which divide up the world like the face of a huge celestial clock, to the Spartan Cleomenes's alarming realisation that it was not a matter of days to travel to the Persian capital but months, time is used to try to make sense of, or express bewilderment at, the vast distances being talked about. And Greek geography is not just static, but frequently in motion, with stadiasmoi, periploi, itineraries and even the occasional International Business TravellerWe hope you enjoy exploring these documents as much as we do. If you’d like to get involved and help us annotate the rest, please do get in touch. We'll go together like....

Thursday, 2 October 2014

“How many miles to Babylon?”

The answer to this famous nursery rhyme – “three score and ten”, i.e. 70 km – seems outrageously high for a day's journey, no matter “if your heels are [exceptionally] nimble and light”. (Even swift-footed Achilles would struggle to cover 70 km in day!) So, what are we to make of it? How can we evaluate such a distance number?

This is where the "database ancient measurements" comes in. The project was initially sponsored by Berlin's excellence cluster TOPOI and is managed now by my IT whiz Rainer Streng who set it up in MS Access and programmed data exports into "Google Earth" and applications in "ArcGIS 10". Irina Tupikova, who by day is an astronomer and mathematician, is also working on Ptolemy's data, recalculating the spherical coordinates to the original measurements.

As far as we know, there is no comparable collection of this kind. Right now, our database includes nearly 100 ancient authors and their works, especially ancient geographers and historians (Strabo, Pliny, Hero­do­tus, Thucydides etc.), but also minor authors like the pseudo-Aristotelian work de mundo or Horace's Satires. All in all we have in our database 2466 "distances", i.e., attested routes with two points and a number. (Among them eleven routes for Babylon, and even bigger figures for a "day´s journey" than the 70 km in the nursery rhyme, if you are interested!)

What can one do with these data? We think: a lot! To start with:

  • How accurate and reliable were ancient measurements data?
  • What units are attested and how do they relate to each other? This is a basic and notorious question in the field of ancient metrology.
  • Who measured or rather estimated distances in antiquity? Soldiers, explorers, merchants? Were there any attempts to map a whole country or empire and standardize the many distances in antiquity? If so, was this a "bottom-up" process done by practitioners like seamen or merchants or a "top-down" one, organized by a central administration?

But there are potentially much more searching questions, such as:

  • How does an ancient author employ numbers, especially distances as a means to engage with his readership, in order to bring home his own ideas or concepts? Authors like Herodotus or Thucydides were very careful (and sometimes even deceptive!) in using numbers in their narratives.
  • How can we use measurement data to explore one of the most basic, important and comparable properties of space is its extension, its spatiality? If researchers concern themselves with spaces, they should not ignore this aspect (as they mostly do). Distances are a means to evaluate the different concepts of space the ancients had in mind. But they allow us also to reconstruct not only the real maps of ancient geographers but also the "mental maps" of merchants, soldiers, intellectuals etc.
  • How can a corpus of ancient measurement data allow us to reconstruct ancient routes and waterways and, in addition, social phenomena like migration or mobility? The ambitious application Rainer works on now, is an ancient network of ancient routes and waterways (something like Orbis or Omnes Viae, but based on our measurement data).

To give just a small example:

The green line depicts the route between Tridentum and Rome, a route, which according
to the "codex Theodosianus" (6.28.1) can be covered in 34 days. 34 days of travel
are "normally" equivalent to c. 850 km (a day´s journey calculated as 25 km). The
linear distance according to Google Earth is 477.58 km. But our ArcGIS model shows that
the route on known Roman roads is in fact 90 km lon­ger, i.e. 567.40 km.

The meetings with the nimble-footed Pelagios team (zigzagging between several locations all over Berlin in one and a half days) helped us sharpen our own profile and scientific approach tremendously. Fine-tuning our data and making it compatible and interoperable with the other Pelagios partners will be undertaken over the upcoming months. Watch this space!

Monday, 29 September 2014

Taking to the high seas: introducing Pelagios phase 4

This month sees the start of another new and exciting phase of Pelagios. With funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council's Digital Transformations programme, we will be exploring the transformative potential of our linked open data network for doing research. In short our brief is to address the question, "ok, now we can link stuff online—so what?"

In response to the challenge posed by "data silos" (the mass of independently produced material uploaded onto the Web), since 2011 we have been developing the means of linking online resources via their common references to place. This has involved "annotating" the place names found in documents and aligning those references to a global gazetteer service (for the ancient world, this is Pleiades). Using Pleiades's Uniform Resource Identifiers (or "social security numbers") for each ancient place as our glue, it is now possible to agree that places mentioned in different materials are one and the same (e.g. Classical Athens and not "Athens, Georgia"). Users are now able to move seamlessly between and search the records of a growing list of international partners.

Thus each place annotation made in the document doesn’t just attach useful spatial information to a resource; it also provides a way of linking to other resources. But, as Andrew Prescott, leader of the AHRC’s Digital Transformations strand, has recently written: 'Scholarship is much harder than [the ability to link]: we need to be clear about why we are linking data, what sort of data we are linking, and our aim in doing so'. Our one-year grant from the AHRC looks to unlock the potential of our place network to reveal previously unknown connections between different places and different documents (texts, databases, maps, etc.).

In particular what we want to do is to use these new links between different documents to rethink key periods in the history of cartography. Until now digital resources have largely concerned issues of accuracy and visualization; i.e. to pinpoint the locations of ancient places with respect to our contemporary topography. What we want to do, rather, is to try to reconstruct and interpret the markedly different ways in which pre-modern authors and mapmakers conceptualized the world. Turning the spotlight on to five moments in time, Pelagios 4 will explore how ancient or pre-modern authors used various means to grasp, represent and communicate spatial knowledge of the world around them.

To conduct this research Pelagios is happy to announce the following scholarly collaborators:

  • Pascal Arnaud, Professor of History at Université Lyon 2 and senior member of the Institut universitaire de France (IUF), is the leading specialist in ancient geography and navigation.
  • Tony Campbell is former head of the British Library’s ‘Map Room’ and the pre-eminent expert on Portolan Charts.
  • Marianne O'Doherty, Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton, has published on medieval European travel narratives, geography and cartography.
  • Klaus Geus, Chair of Ancient Geography at FU Berlin, co-ordinates the TOPOI Excellence Cluster in ‘Common Sense Geography’. He is joined by Irina Tupikova, a leading mathematical astronomer with an interest in the history of science.

We look forward to working with these scholars and rethinking the ways in which geographic space was imagined and represented before the advent of modern Cartesian cartography.

Portolan chart by Jorge de Aguiar (1492), the oldest known
signed and dated chart of Portuguese origin.

Citation: "Jorge Aguiar 1492 MR" by Jorge de Aguiar - Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Yale, New Haven, USA. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons