Linked Open Data to navigate the Past: using Peripleo in Class
Linked Open Data is a powerful tool for navigating through the complexity of the inherently multifaceted reality of archaeological sites, which results from the intersections of space, materiality, language, visual culture, history, text, and so on. However, LOD also poses the challenge of how to manage such complexity in a meaningful way. In this post, we report on an experimental project developed during a Classical Archaeology course in 2018 at Furman University, where we researched four different Graeco-Roman sites, with the goal of reconstructing the main aspects of their material history through exclusively LOD-based resources.
The purpose of the exercise was to see if we could investigate the history of a place by simply using the information provided through Linked Open Data search engines and databases. So, we decided to start with Peripleo, the LOD-based search engine of Pelagios, whose main purpose is to connect together several partnered datasets, by using places as the common ground.
We explored four sites: Ostia Antica, Herculaneum, Alexandria, and Eleusis. Preliminary choosing the sites to explore enabled to establish a certain hierarchy in the information: first, we gathered the resulting links to gazetteers (especially Pleiades), to collect information about the site, including relevant geographical connections and attested chronologies. We then used Peripleo’s filter options to isolate specific periods of use of our sites, and classified the resulting links according to the database of provenance.
Initially, we managed the richness of the results by focusing on specific typologies of information: so, we harvested links to Fasti Online to collect data about excavations in our sites; we looked for artifacts through a large variety of databases, including Ariadne, Arachne, WikiData, Vici, Perseus, and Flickr; we especially used these resources to find pictures and basic information on each artifact, and as a starting point towards more specific datasets from museums and archives.
Coinages and hoards were certainly a prominent feature. Through Peripleo, we had access to a massive set of numismatic resources, including Nomisma and the Münzkabinett Online Catalogue of Berlin. Textual sources were mainly collected through ToposText, which was privileged for its focus on locations. Inscriptions were found through the EAGLE Network and the University of Graz Online Portal.
From each of these resources, we were further directed in our exploration according to the emerging patterns in our findings: for example, the information collected through Arachne was extremely useful to access bibliographical data on religious artifacts in Eleusis; we used Europeana to further research Herculaneum, and from there we accessed the Bodleian Library collection of the Herculaneum Papyri and the related information about their context of finding, the Villa of Papyri, on Pleiades. Researching Coinages of rulers in Alexandria provided a significant amount of information about the Roman emperors that controlled the city, through links to biographical databases (e.g. VIAF). EAGLE enabled us to even access not LOD-based resources, such as the Epigraphic Database of Rome, to collect alternative transcriptions.
We created object cards, specifying the essential information, the online identifier, and the further connections to other findings or contexts. Collectively, we were able to assemble approximately 50 cards, which, depending on the specificities of the site, included excavations, inscriptions, coinage, textual sources, monuments, mosaics, houses, papyri, sculptures (in bronze, marble, terracotta), pottery, and even furniture remains. We then wrote reports about each site, focusing on the best attested chronological periods (Herculaneum) or on prominent aspects of material history: in the case of Alexandria, for example, we propose an exploration of material evidence documenting cultural syncretism in the Graeco-Roman era.
Pedagogical and scholarly outcomes
Linked Open Data improves the discoverability of scholarly resources tremendously, and search engines like Peripleo also present that search in an esthetically attractive fashion. Provided that the tools used are adequate to the purpose, this kind of exploration has a strong pedagogical potential, because it enables to make continuous and not necessarily expected new discoveries, including things that are in less known archives around the world. Also, Peripleo enabled us to rationally navigate through the complexity of thousands of scholarly records, contributing to create a rich picture of the complexity of an archaeological site, which is the result of several interconnected pieces of evidence. Getting through that complexity directly improves the perception of archaeological research for the student, who can perform complex research across a variety of different resources, and learned how to navigate through the information of specialized datasets with very different structures, vocabularies and functions.
There is still too much volatility in the adoption of shared vocabularies across LOD resources: this limits the range of searchable items, specifically types of archaeological findings. This is a well known problem in the world of Archaeological Linked Open data, now further reinforced by user experience. Furthermore, while there has been much investment in LOD infrastructures, the actual availability of data and metadata is still questionable for some archaeological sites. Whereas sites like Ostia and Herculaneum display a considerable amount of semantically diversified and interlinked material, places like Alexandria are more of a challenge in researching accurate and rich information, for the scarce availability of digitized archaeological records.