EEO-AGI Scotland Seminar Review : Leif Isaksen, University of Exeter : 25th May

Over the last years, Archaeologists have identified the importance of sharing the information given the complexity and the amount of our data. The development of web and geospatial technologies has enhanced the capability to publish our information[1]. This does not only imply more original ways of presenting the results from our studies to the public[2]; it also enables archaeologists to work collaboratively through powerful online.

This has been the aim of Leif Isaksen, the speaker of the seminar on the 25th May, who is a professor in Digital Humanities at the University of Exeter and is Project Director of the Pelagios Commons. Leif defines himself as being interested in community exchange. This concern has determined his career towards the unification of his particular interests on the online visualisation and linking of spatial ancient data and his research ambits: Ptolemy’s Geography, the Tabula Peutingeriana and the geographic thought and representation in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Currently he is also an active member of the excavation team in the hilltop enclosure on Cluny Hill in Forres, Moray.

Leif’s talk revolved around the Pelagios Commons project and its focus on linked open geodata in the past-oriented humanities. The ambition of the project is to use the web as a medium for promoting the connection and exchange of online historical resources through the places they refer to amongst its community of users. He also emphasized the fact that its applications are not only restricted to Archaeology or History, as other fields such as poetry and literature also make use of it.

In order to introduce the background of the project, Leif used Herodotus’ Histories as an example and what he called the “semantic miracle”, regarding the identification of places referred in the text. Once this happens, it is necessary to apply the connecting principle to link the words to their location: annotate each string of characters with unique URLs linking to a gazetteer such as Pleiades. However, in this growing digital ecosystem of linked data, a huge variety of resources is available. However, Pelagios as a connecting infrastructure aims to become the toolset that puts all websites and documents about the study place according to the same structure.

Continuing with the same work by Herodotus, the audience was introduced Pelagios Commons’ website as first-time users: automatic identification of location names, color-coding, tagging and the eventual map visualisation. During this explanation, as an archaeologist, the first thing that comes to mind are all the sites whose location remains unknown or uncertain. This is resolved by providing a list of the sources referring to the name, which the user can use to decide if a location has to be assigned. Moreover, the user must confirm if the automatic identifications have been made correctly and can do any modification before the map is created.

Speaking in front of an audience full of GIS students, Leif was clear to note that one of the key points was that all identified places are available as a CSV file for further spatial analysis. Pursuing his interests, he also pointed out Pelagios’ capability to transcribe and annotate on old maps, a feature that has recently been improved so as to display other elements on it. The tools on the website seem to be countless. It is also possible to create emergent networks that connect text annotations together, in which you can apply network analysis. Furthermore, users can collaborate on the same document according to different levels of permissions.

Finally, Leif introduced the latest development of Pelagios Commons project: Peripleo. The website provides the user with a map and a search box. After supplying a word, the map displays the locations associated to the word, which you can click to see more information, and a histogram showing its usage over time. All these features seem exciting and tremendously useful when you want to check quickly the sources and the location of specific elements. As Leif joked, it is a good alternative to Google for historical elements.

After all the technical explanations, Leif addressed the growing scope of the project and engaged us to attend the Linked Pasts IV meeting on December 12-13 in Mainz, Germany. It is exciting to hear how projects like this are trying to engage professionals from all over the world through working groups and development grants. Hopefully this is just the start of the linked open data in humanities!

Guillem Domingo Ribas

(MSc in GIS & Archaeology)


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