Report: Digital Palaeography panel (at ICP, Lecce, July 2019)

On the morning on Wednesday, July 31st 2019, there was a two-hour session of the International Congress of Papyrology, in Lecce, Italy, on Digital Palaeography. This session was convened by Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello, Klaas Bentein and myself, although I only attended virtually via Google Hangout.

The session was made up of seven short papers (10 minutes each, no individual questions) and two longer sessions for general discussion between the participants and the audience.

We began with an introduction by the organizers, in which Isabelle asked how we might use computer science progress in areas such as document analysis and handwriting recognition to further the research goals of papyrology and other ancient palaeographical disciplines. Klaas gave a brief overview of his ERC project “Everyday Writing in Graeco-Roman and Late Antique Egypt.”

The first three presentations were:

  • Vlad Atanasiu (Basel): Script Styles Panoramas by Computational Synthesis (including a nice synthesis of the conflict between computational or statistical knowledge, and human expertise, which needs different kinds of understanding and communication).
  • Fabian Wespi (Heidelberg): Digital Palaeography and Demotic studies (great summary of approaches to classification in Demotic palaeography and how digital approaches contribute to the field).
  • Gemma Hayes (Groningen): The Search for the Qumran Scribes (based on the project “The Hands that wrote the Bible: Digital Palaeography and scribal culture in the Dead Sea Scrolls” that we heard about in London in December).

Followed by ten minutes discussion, much of which focussed on the interoperability of algorithmic approaches such as those presented by the first three speakers, and in particular the possibility of applying approaches designed for one language or script to handwritten texts in other languages.

The next four presentations then, were:

  • Antonia Sarri (Manchester): Handling of Received Letters from Ptolemaic to Roman Times (very interesting overview of the difficulty in identifying and analyising handshifts in papyrological texts, and what they tell us about the re-use of papyrus correspondence).
  • Hussein A. Mohammed (Hamburg): Computational Analysis of Handwriting Styles in Heavily Degraded Manuscripts (a wonderful case-study in some very hard to read documents, and discussion of various computational approaches to improving the programmatic analysis of them).
  • Isabelle Marthot-Santaniello (Basel): D-scribes project and notary hands in Dioscorus archive (proposed futuristic database for search for handwriting similarity, described a programming competition for binarization tools, and plugged “GoRDiPal” (Group of Research in Digital Palaeography) and the D-Scribes mailing list)
  • Alberto Nodar, Lluís González Julià (Barcelona): What’s inside the cigar boxes? The carbonized papyi of the Palau-Ribes collection (the difficulty of studying the Bubastos papyri which are both fragmented and [randomly] dispersed among collections around world).

There followed another twenty minutes of general discussion, which touched on the importance of transparency in mathematical analysis, and of course therefore of open source and other permissive licences for software and data. Metadata about both tools and processes used, credit individual interventions and collaborations (including, I would say, micro-contributions) are essential to make this work academically credible.

Please join the D-Scribes mailing list if you would like to join and continue this conversation beyond the conference.

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