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“Is that a place or a person?” Teaching classics with a digital annotation platform

Valeria Vitale

University of London

This paper will argue that the Pelagios online platform Recogito, which enables users to annotate geographical references in digitised ancient documents and to create related map-based visualisations, is a valuable research tool for classicists, as it allows analysis of the textual sources in a spatial perspective. In addition, however, it argues that by allowing users to create annotations, georeference ancient locations, and add tags and comments, Recogito is an interactive and innovative tool in the teaching of classics, facilitating the engagement of non-expert audiences with ancient texts, and challenging their assumptions about ancient places.

In recent years, the Pelagios project has shown the value of connecting historical digital resources in Linked Open Data (LOD) format, especially, but not only, according to their common geographical references (Isaksen et al. 2014). The work of the Pelagios team has been seen as an example of best practice in linking information (Geser 2016), championing the value of semantically connected resources hosted in different databases. As a proof of concept, a set of these connected resources can be easily queried and explored with Pelagios’ map-based visualisation tool, Peripleo. While joining the debate about applications of Linked Open Geodata in the study of the ancient world, Pelagios has also advocated lower barriers to the creation of semantic annotations and LOD, particularly for humanist with little digital background. Towards this end, Pelagios developed a user-friendly annotation platform called Recogito.

Recogito enables the annotation of historical texts in digital form and, in particular, the georeferencing of places, relying on gazetteers of the classical world such as Pleiades or the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire. Recogito’s main aims were to a) make humanists producers and not only consumers of semantic annotations, and b) facilitate the applications of spatial perspectives to the analysis of ancient sources. In addition to these initial goals, we have more recently introduced Recogito in teaching contexts. Confirming research about the interaction between maps and literature (Rossetto 2014), we have found that enabling the students to annotate place references and visualise them on a map they created themselves is an engaging and empowering process that helps building a closer relationship with historical sources. As anyone working with ancient geography knows, assigning real world coordinates to ancient places is seldom a straightforward operation. Georeferencing, or simply annotating, ancient sources, invites the students to explicate their choices and methodology. Assumptions about the nature of ancient places, the available knowledge about their locations, and their relationship with the people that used to live in those areas become inevitable topics in a debate which brings the students closer to the text and stimulates a more active and critical approach. Constrained by technology to be consistent, students start rethinking, or at least questioning, their own idea of “place” and boundaries, the role of place names in defining a place’s identity, the status of ethnonyms as source of geographical information, and even, sometimes, the blurred line that separates characters, places, and personifications of places. The place-annotation exercise also familiarizes students with the connected historical gazetteers, and implicitly invites them to fill the gaps and correct the inaccuracies that they might have encountered geo-resolving their text of choice.

In conclusion, we argue that the added values of geo-annotating an ancient text are not to be found exclusively in the final research outcome, but also in the annotating process itself. Creating digital geo-annotations and producing map-based visualisations of place references in ancient literature through the Recogito platform is not only a meaningful way to investigate texts in a spatial perspective and produce sharable semantic annotations, but, in a pedagogical context, it also promotes a better engagement with the text, a deeper understanding of the multifaceted concept of “ancient place,” and a more active role in the academic community.

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Geospatial Classics: Teaching and Research Applications of GIS Technology

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