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Research Cluster on Spatial Classics

A rapidly growing research area at The Open University, with interdisciplinary connections with both inside and out of the faculty, including the Digital Humanities, Geography, the Knowledge Media Institute and the Institute for Educational Technology, Spatial Classics stands at the forefront of global efforts to use contemporary theory and technology for rethinking space and place in the ancient world. Supported by funding from various research councils, international foundations and commercial bodies, the SC research group has been instrumental in developing open and reusable digital tools and establishing best practice for identifying, visualizing and investigating ancient space and places through their material culture and literary representations. By combining spatial theory with technological development, SC is transforming the cultural capital of Classics more broadly—the way that information about the Graeco-Roman worlds can be found and explored, and how the past is conceived and discussed.

Research Activities

Mapping links between places in Herodotus’s Histories, not points on a map

Figure 1. Mapping links between places in Herodotus’s Histories, not points on a map: a network diagram showing the relatedness of places in Herodotus’s Histories Book 5. Supported by funding from two AHRC programmes (Early Career; Follow-on), Hestia (twitter: @hestiaproject) brings together scholars from different disciplines (Classics, Geography and Digital Humanities) and non-academics working in cultural heritage and the digital economy, to explore both the potential and challenges of complex data, digital visualisations and network analysis.

Research in the SC cluster is united by the common interest in applying new methods, approaches and technologies from spatial theory and geospatial analysis to reanimate discussion of the ancient world. Using GIS (Geographical Information Systems) for interrogating archaeological data, Phil Perkins examines the spatial and temporal distribution of social and economic variables derived from the distributions of Etruscan settlements, population, territory and material culture. Involving a collaboration of researchers from Classics, Geography and Digital Humanities, Elton Barker’s Hestia project offers a new way of thinking about how geographic space is organised in narrative by exploring the relations between places, using Herodotus’s Histories as a case study. The resulting network graphs (see Figure 1) reveal a world that is organized around action and influence, which both challenges topographical-based cartography and disrupts the familiar conceptual division between East and West. Eleanor Betts takes a multisensory approach, focusing on how bodily sensations and experiences affected the construction and use of space, with an emphasis on mapping movement in Roman urban and Iron Age Italic landscapes. She is a founding member of the Sensory Studies in Antiquity network and the multidisciplinary Spatialising the Humanities (SPARC) network, a collaboration between participating CHASE institutions.

Network analysis is also the focus of the work of visiting fellow, Tom Brughmans. His MERCURY project draws heavily on recent developments in social systems simulation and network science to better understand how the Roman economy functioned from the perspective of individual traders (see Figure 2). By creating computational simulation models, in which software traders are connected to each other in a social network, share information, and trade goods, fundamentally different hypotheses about how information and goods traveled from one end of the Roman empire to the other can be tested in a controlled environment. Moreover, through collaboration with scholars from the University of Leuven, MERCURY is able to compare the simulated distributions of ceramics with those excavated by archaeologists and included in the ICRATES database.

simulated distribution of Roman trade networks

Figure 2. Studying the social networks that made the Roman economy tick.


Developing tools and resources

Another strand of work focuses on the research and development of the tools and resources needed for transforming the ways in which ancient world places can be identified, visualized and explored. Co-led by Elton Barker, the GAP project has developed an automated means by which places mentioned in a digital text can be discovered, mapped and visualized alongside the text. Also co-led by Elton Barker is Pelagios, a project that is developing the means for linking different online documents (both text and image, literary and archaeological), to create a world wide web of antiquity.

Reading a text geospatially
Confronted by the challenge of massive text corpora (such as GoogleBooks or the Internet Archive), the GAP project has developed an automated means of discovering places mentioned in a text and then locating these places on a map. In doing so, it has created an intuitive online platform, called GapVis, which enables users to read text and maps alongside each other in three ways (see Figure 3): the Summary View provides a big-picture perspective on what places occur and where they occur in the narrative; the Reading View presents the text, map and narrative timeline in one interface to facilitate the reading of place as one moves through the narrative; the Place Detail view provides deeper information about a particular geographic location. We offer this platform for reading Herodotus’s Histories (known as HestiaVis). It is also used as the basis for a free online learning module developed in collaboration with The Open University’s OpenLearn Unit, which enables the user to explore Herodotus’s inquiry for themselves.

GapVis showing the landing page and a reading page

Figure 3. GapVis: (a) the landing page, showing a text’s spatial breadth and density, as well as how often and where places are mentioned in the narrative; (b) the reading page, with the text on the left, the places mentioned within it on the right, and a narrative ‘timeline’ below. Supported by funding from two Digital Humanities Research Grants from Google’s Research Awards Program, GAP involves the collaboration of Classicists and computer scientists from the OU, the University of Southampton’s Web Science group, Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, and the Alexandria Archive.


Linking together the places of our past through the documents that refer to them.
Pelagios is a community-driven initiative that facilitates better linkages between online resources documenting the past, based on the places they refer to. Place references form an essential basis of the semantic content of most historical documents: people are born, live and die in places; events always happen somewhere; the ability to identify places is important in any attempt to work with, compare or interpret such materials. Tools, infrastructure and resources for collating, aligning and exploiting place references in historical documents can therefore have a broad and significant impact across fields including Archaeology, History and Classics. The task is far from straightforward however. A place may have different names over time (or variant spellings in different cultures), different places may have the same name (there are at least 17 ancient Alexandrias for instance), while issues like these are exacerbated by the ever-increasing volume and diversity of the material now available online. In response to these challenges, Pelagios has been pioneering the use of place annotation (tagging place references in online documents of all kinds—texts, databases, maps, etc.) and alignment of those annotations to place authority files—gazetteers, which assign each place a unique, stable identifier in the form of a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI). Essentially, whenever you refer to a place in your data, you should do so using a gazetteer URI, for in this way otherwise isolated datasets become implicitly joined up together.

To facilitate this process, Pelagios has developed two intuitive and open online platforms for the user community. Recogito is an annotation interface that features (see Figure 4): i) a text annotation area to identify place names in digital texts or tabular documents; ii) an image annotation area to mark up and transcribe place names on high-resolution map or manuscript scans; iii) a geo-resolution area, where identified (and transcribed) place names are mapped to a gazetteer, supported by an automated suggestion system. Recogito also provides basic features for cataloguing and managing documents and their metadata, as well as for viewing annotation results, usage statistics and bulk-downloading annotation data. All annotations produced are CC0 (i.e. open to all for any reuse). Meanwhile, Peripleo is a Google-style search engine for exploring the online content connected by Pelagios-based annotations. Its user interface resembles that of Google Maps, and allows for free browsing as well as keyword and full-text search, while offering additional filtering options based on time, data source and object type (See Figure 5). This enables users to explore the geographic, temporal and thematic composition of distributed digital collections in their entirety, and then to progressively filter and drill down to explore individual records.


Pelagios’s annotation platform, Recogito

Figure 4. Pelagios’s annotation platform, Recogito, showing: (i) the annotation area, where places in a text or, in this case, a map can be tagged; and (ii) the georesolution area, where those annotations are aligned to a gazetteer (and thus become part of Pelagios). The numbers refer to different elements of the interface, which are explained in an online tutorial.

Pelagios’s search-engine, Peripleo

Figure 5. Pelagios’s search-engine, Peripleo, showing the result of a search for the term “tetradrachm” (an ancient Greek coin type). The map on the left shows the early spatial distribution of the coin’s findspots, while the map on the right shows its later spatial distribution. By providing guidelines and schema for annotating references to ancient places, Pelagios assists researchers or curators working on the ancient world to make their resources more discoverable and usable, while enabling students, researchers and the general public to find out about the cities of antiquity and explore the rich interconnections between them. Supported by funding from JISC, the AHRC and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, Pelagios (twitter: @Pelagiosproject) is led by the OU, Lancaster and the Austrian Institute of Technology, with partners from around the world.


Staying connected

Spatial Classics is a rapidly changing environment. Aiming to stay at the forefront of the discipline, we are members of the following national and international bodies: the GeoHumanities special interest group of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations; the Linked Ancient World Data Institute of New York University; the NeDiMAH workgroup on Information Visualisation in the Digital Humanities; and Spatialising the Humanities (SPARC). We collaborate with the following international groups and institutions: Greece (Institute of Historical Research and National Documentation Centre), Germany (Berlin: TOPOI, Common Sense Geography in Antiquity; Mainz; Cologne; Leipzig: Digital Humanities), and Sweden (Umeå: HUMLab; Lund: Department of Archaeology; The Humanities Lab; Uppsala). If you would like to join or see any possibilities of collaboration, please contact us. We look forward to hearing from you!