Dr Valeria Vitale and Dr Gabriel Bodard explains the research behind the Cross-cultural After-Life of Classical Sites project, which aimed to extend our knowledge of the cultural complexity of many classical sites and widen the idea of the ‘ancient world’ beyond Greek and Roman cultures and languages. Part of a larger initiative to research and record sources for Arabic, Ottoman and other later names for Mediterranean sites of classical interest, the project was hosted by the Institute of Classical Studies part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London.

The Pleiades Gazetteer, probably the most useful authority of any kind of the Ancient and Late Antique Linked Web, is based on the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, the most definitive print atlas of classical antiquity. Although constantly under improvement, Pleiades is already as close to a comprehensive list of known Greco-Roman places and names as we have ever had.

The majority of names in the gazetteer are those in use in Anglo-Saxon classical scholarship: either the classical names that were in the atlas (eg Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium; αἱ Ἀθῆναι), or the English/Italian rendering of a modern or other variant place name (Naples, Cyrene/Cirene). And this misses a huge part of the picture.

Shortly after the end of what we call the Classical Period, and before the Latin Middle Ages or Renaissance, the Islamic world took control of huge swathes of the former Empire, and held parts of it for many centuries. Iberia and Sicily were Arabic-speaking for hundreds of years, and most of the Balkans were part of the Turkish-speaking Ottoman Empire for centuries after the fall of Byzantium. Today, almost half of the former Roman Empire is still made up of countries whose first language are a form of Arabic.

Many sources, from mediaeval maps and manuscripts, through Renaissance scholarship, to modern references in academic and popular works in North Africa and the Near East, will be inaccessible to the sort of computational study that digital humanities enable if we do not take into account the Arabic and Ottoman names for sites such as Alicante (أليكانته), Messina (مسينة), Thessaloniki (سلانیك) and Leptis Magna (لَبْدَة‎‎).

More important, this one-sided recording of historical names runs the risk of (inadvertently) perpetuating the myth of European monoculture. The idea that there is an uninterrupted and pure line – politically, geographically, linguistically, genetically – from the grandeur of antiquity to the enlightenment of modern Europe, to which no one but white, Christian, Indo-European speaking people contributed.

The main goal of the Cross-cultural After-Life of Classical Sites (CALCS) project was to enhance the Pleiades Gazetteer to include modern and historical names for classical places in the Arabic and Ottoman languages. We wanted to render a more accurate idea of the cultural complexity of many classical sites, as well as add modern Arabic and Turkish spellings for historical places everywhere in the world in order to facilitate inclusion and collaboration with Arabic and Turkish speaking research communities.

Our work was supported by a resource development grant from Pelagios Commons – a project funded by the A.W. Mellon foundation to create an open and interconnected system of digital resources about the ancient world, linked together via their common geographical references. Such semantic links are often generated via Recogito, Pelagios’ online annotation platform, using Pleiades and other gazetteers to disambiguate place references in historical texts and maps.

To gather new name data, we relied on three kinds of sources: traditional manual transcription from historical maps and documents, machine data extraction, and collaboration with communities of Arabic- and Turkish-speaking colleagues.

  • For the manual transcription, we worked on major Islamic maps of the world: the Tabula Rogeriana and the Book of Curiosities, the work of Ottoman cartographer Piri Reis or the illustrations for the Book of Roads and Kingdoms (Kitab al-masalik wa-al-mamalik) of Abu Ishaq Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Farisi al Istakhri.
  • For the machine data extraction side of our project, we exploited the fact that many place entries in Pleiades cite a Wikipedia page as a primary topic of the place under discussion. We wrote a Python script that searches for such entries, checks whether the Wikipedia page in question links to a Wikidata record (a linked data resource that provides stable and cross-referenced information, including names from multiple language versions of Wikipedia), and finally outputs the Arabic and Turkish name forms (if present) and all supporting metadata in a form that can easily be imported into the spreadsheet we designed.
  • We involved communities of Arabic students and researchers in the annotation of classical places via the Recogito platform, and into the identification and addition of Arabic place-names directly to Pleiades, with the goal of amplifying the role of Arabic scholarship, both past and present, in the study of Classics. We also worked with scholars of Ottoman South-East Europe to add Turkish names (in Arabic script) to Classical sites that were still populated in the early modern period.

We believe that a project like CALCS has highlighted the importance of looking at places as cultural entities, and how the idea of a place can change not only through time but also across different contemporary cultures.

In this sense, CALCS, which ran for four months from August–November 2016, seems to be an excellent starting point for projects that gather and compare different views of the same place, and the different connotations that have been assigned to it. All data and scripts created under the CALCS project are available as open source code at: https://github.com/DigiClass/CALCS.

About the authors

  • Dr Gabriel Bodard is reader in digital classics at the Institute of Classical Studies (ICS), part of the School of Advanced Study, University of London. His particular expertise includes the encoding and publication of epigraphic and papyrological documents in digital form, and the capture and sharing of data about ancient people and places through Linked Open Data and the semantic web. He organizes the Digital Classicist seminar in London, and teaches classes and workshops on digital methods for classicists and archaeologists nationally and internationally. He has edited several volumes of essays in the area of digital classics, and is the author of guidelines for encoding ancient texts (EpiDoc) and sharing person databases (SNAP:DRGN)
  • Dr Valeria Vitale joined the ICS in January 2017 as a research fellow on the A. W. Mellon funded project Pelagios Commons, for which she works as community manager and part of the investigative team. She has an extensive experience in teaching 3D tools and methods to humanists and showing how spatial technologies can enhance the study and understanding of the past. Dr Vitale has also collaborated with various digital projects that focus on ancient geography, including the Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus, i.Sicily, the Pleiades Gazetteer and the Heritage Gazetteer of Libya.