Google Ancient Places digs into the past

An exciting new project exploring how people in the past viewed the geography of the ancient world, has been backed by $50,000 grant from Google, Inc. via its Digital Humanities Awards Program.

Google Ancient Places (GAP) is developing a Web application which allows users to choose a classical text or book (from between 500BC – 500AD) and then search for references to ancient places within it, presenting the results in a user-friendly interface.

GAP uses specialist software to identify where and how often places are mentioned within a text, displaying references to the locations and plotting results on a map using an independent digital gazetteer (Pleiades).

Interface system

Project leader, and Southampton Digital Humanities specialist, Dr Leif Isaksen explains, “A GAP user can not only see how an author’s narrative moves from place-to-place, but also how a town or city’s relative importance varies throughout a historical text. We hope it will interest scholars and users with a general interest in antiquity alike.”

A worldwide collaboration

GAP is an international collaborative research project between University of Southampton (Dr Leif Isaksen), Open University (Dr Elton Barker), University of Edinburgh (Dr Kate Byrne), University of California, Berkeley (Dr Eric Kansa) and independent developer Nick Rabinowitz. This Digital Humanities Research Grant is the second round of funding GAP has received from the Google Research Awards Program, and will allow the team to expand their project to a wider variety of books and texts.

There are currently 27 texts on GAP and in the coming months the intention is to increase the number to several hundred.

Dr Isaksen comments, “We intend to expand the scope of the material we are working with, increasing the volume of and variety of the texts, so not just factual texts but also poetry and fiction.”

Access to wider datasets planned

In addition, GAP is part of a larger network of open data on antiquity called Pelagios, which is made up of several similar online projects. By integrating GAP with this network, the researchers hope to give users access to more varied types of data, such as archaeological artefacts or historical documents.

Open University classicist, Dr Elton Barker says, “Previous projects have tended to be closed silos of information and that has reinforced barriers between disciplines. By linking our data to other archaeological and classical resources it becomes possible to navigate directly between them, making it easier to look at ancient texts and artefacts in their spatial, cultural and literary context.”

The system will use the data from multiple books to help automatically identify different versions of the same text and also to explore ‘self-correcting’ algorithms that notice mismatches between the place annotation lists and automatically amend them. However, automatically generated data can never be perfect and currently there is a limited functionality for user comments which the team would like to develop into simple but robust system that users can use to correct false identifications and even propose new ones.

The potential for this system will open up the ancient world as never before. With books by Labadius-Zymethus, Livy, Josephus and already available, this is a way to visualise how antique Geographers choose to view two dimensional geo-space in one-dimensional text?

Source: University of Southampton
Past Horizons


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