Report on Durham/ICS Digital and Practical Epigraphy Course 4-8 April 2022

Report by Julius Guthrie, Charlotte Spence & Elena Tzoka.

In the first week of April 2022 a training workshop was held at the Institute of Classical Studies, University of London, to provide an introduction to the core issues and methods involved in epigraphy. The focus of the workshop was on skills for Greek and Latin epigraphy, including squeeze-making, photogrammetry, and EpiDoc, a community of practice, recommendations and tools for the digital editing and publication of ancient texts based on TEI XML. As digital humanities continues to become an increasingly important part of the field, this aspect of the training was particularly welcome.

The training was offered by Gabriel Bodard (ICS), Katherine McDonald (Durham), and Irene Vagionakis (ENCODE project, Bologna), with contributions from Caroline Barron (Durham), Matilde Grimaldi, and others. This workshop was generously funded by the AHRC Early Career Fellowship ‘Connectivity and Competition’ (grant AH/R010943/1; PI Katherine McDonald), the Institute of Classical Studies and Durham University.

A drying squeeze on Latin inscription. Photo: Julius Guthrie.

Summary of Content:

Each day of the course was split into two. The first half of the day, until roughly 1pm, was used for watching self-paced videos that had been pre-recorded by the instructors. The second half of the day was interactive. For in-person participants this was classroom-based learning and a chance not only to ask questions, but to put skills viewed online to the test in a practical setting. These classroom sessions featured a guest lecture from a professional epigraphist. For online participants, the afternoon structure was similar and they joined those in the classroom via a hybrid format.

Ink illustration of Latin inscription, by Charlotte Spence

The week began with an online, self-paced introduction to the theme of the week, which included a series of videos that introduced us to epigraphy and the practical skills that epigraphists require in order to read, record, and work with inscriptions. These included showing how squeezes are formed and how drawing inscriptions might help us capture details that would be nearly impossible to see in person or on pictures. The guest lecture delivered by Dr Matilde Grimaldi focused on how useful the art of illustration can be in academic work. Many of the examples presented clearly showed how greatly a clear illustration can improve the clarity and understanding of ideas and arguments.

On the Tuesday, the focus switched to understanding and practicing photogrammetry as a tool for epigraphy. Aykan Akcay, the guest lecturer, exhibited his own field work and guided us through the process of gathering images that would eventually be turned into 3D models. In addition, the lecture illustrated how different digital light settings may help in reading worn inscriptions and revealing subtleties that were otherwise not visible with the naked eye. Using the programmes Agisoft Metashape and Autodesk Meshmixer, participants were then able to attempt their own photogrammetry on a range of objects supplied.

Charlotte Spence capturing photographs of a statuette for photogrammetry. Photo: Katherine McDonald

The Tuesday also contained an optional evening component, with a talk given on a project cataloguing the inscriptions of Libya and creating an online corpus using EpiDoc. This provided a fascinating insight into how skills learned on this course could be applied in practice.

On Wednesday the emphasis was on the production of computer-readable databases with the self-paced videos introducing us to XML, EpiDoc and the programme Oxygen. This was a great opportunity to engage with the skills we had heard being discussed the previous evening.

Caroline Barron speaking on Identifying Fakes and Forgeries in Latin Inscriptions. Photo: Katherine McDonald.

The guest lecture was delivered by Dr Caroline Barron and focused on the creation of epigraphic forgeries, both the addition of inscriptions later to ancient objects, such as ash chests, as well as the creation of entirely fake objects. A discussion of the production of epigraphic corpora was necessarily included and was incredibly illuminating; our understanding of epigraphy as a discipline is shaped by the decisions of these early individuals.

The next day, Thursday, very much drew together the various strands of the course up to that point, and allowed participants the opportunity to really be epigraphists through the medium of a field-trip to Old St. Pancras Gardens. In particular, the excursion was useful for giving participants a genuine understanding of the practical challenges that can be presented by landscape, weather and ethics (the site is a graveyard); all of which can be studied in a classroom but only really understood after fieldwork. Techniques such as using a racking light meant that letter shapes which had initially been completely invisible literally came to light and helped participants create a fuller transcription of the text.

Friday, as the last day of the course, was used as an opportunity to ask questions, practice skills and present work completed for informal feedback in a supportive environment. Participants seem to have found this especially useful, since it gave an opportunity for everyone to listen to the challenges encountered by each person while learning the various tools introduced throughout the week.

Summary:

One of the most difficult challenges for a skills-based workshop is to appeal to a diverse audience, with differing levels of knowledge about the subject and divergent areas of interest. This report has been co-authored by three individuals who approach epigraphy from entirely different angles: one works primarily of cursed-tablets, one is a predominantly political historian and the other examines material evidence for women in Roman Athens. Despite our varied interests, we each of us found this course to be remarkably stimulating, enjoyable and informative. One author, in particular, has since gone on to consider how the digital aspects of the course could allow them to turn a project they are working on into an online database.

Workshop participants documenting a grave monument in St Pancras Old Cemetery. Photo: Katherine McDonald.

The split day approach with self-paced videos followed by collaborative discussions and practical engagement was a particular success. This approach encouraged individualisation, not only in terms of what was of interest, but in terms of overcoming specific problems when learning new skills. The ability to return to footage over and over, to pause and to rewind allowed participants to gain a full and deep understanding of issues and skills that would not be possible if simply delivered orally. It also gave everyone a chance to develop detailed questions for the afternoons and to think ahead regarding what they would do in the practical sessions.

Overall, this course was a fantastic introduction to digital and practical epigraphy, and credit should be given to those, mentioned above, who organised and delivered it, and thanks to the Institute of Classical Studies for hosting the workshop.

Julius Guthrie, University of Exeter
Charlotte Spence, University of Exeter
Elena Tzoka, University of Durham

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