Review: Roman Inscriptions of Britain

Roman Inscriptions of Britain is a digitally-enhanced version of R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright’s Roman Inscriptions of Britain, vol. 1 (1965), and its 2,400 inscriptions. It includes all subsequent Addenda and Corrigenda to volume 1. Volumes 2 (1990–1995, instrumentum domesticum) and 3 (2009, more recent finds) are not yet available online, but all the major Roman inscriptions of Britain are included here. Since the work of editing, preparing, and composing commentary for the inscriptions had already been done, the site’s creator, Scott Vanderbilt, could focus the interface, and on applying TEI and EpiDoc markups. The result is a rich, interactive website: a powerful tool for scholars and students, and a delight to even casual visitors.

A helpful guide describes various types of searches possible: by number of inscription, plain string, boolean (“Mars OR Cocidius”), and wildcard (“Sul*” finds Suleviae, Sulinus, Sulis, Sulpicius, etc.). Remarkably, all Latin words have been lemmatized, so a search for cohors finds cohortis, cohorti, etc. Crucially for a site with so much information, one can also browse easily: by the name of archaeological site, or by the name of institution holding the inscriptions; one can scan through, say, all milestones, or all inscriptions that don’t in fact belong in Roman Britain (aliena). A series of reference resources includes exhaustive concordance tables and the exceedingly useful series of epigraphical indices first published in 1983—one can view, for example, all terms used to refer to social status. A linked data approach to organizing the data is available in human-readable HTML, and plans are underway for an interface that will present the data as RDF in a variety of formats.

The Inscriptions

Almost all the inscriptions are fragmentary, some very fragmentary, but the online presentation keeps readers well oriented. Included are information about the support, about the text itself, three kinds of transcriptions, translation into English, textual apparatus, commentary, bibliography, illustrations, and a map showing the find spot (see below). The vast majority of inscriptions are depicted in drawings, rather than photographs, since many inscriptions are now lost. These black-and-white line drawings clearly and effectively present the portion or portions that survived for each stone or inscribed object.

Even a novice user will find something of interest to consider, and teachers will see opportunities to discuss a variety of topics. The drawings, for example, raise the issue of how we reconstruct epigraphic text. The information about original find spot (“Site”) and where the inscription is currently housed (“Institution”) can inform discussions on the afterlife of inscriptions. The apparatus and commentary illustrate how an epigrapher must marshal archaeological, onomastic, literary, and historical evidence to explain the text of an inscription.

Interactive Interface

The sheer amount of material through which one can click is one of the most attractive qualities of the site. Hyperlinks are scattered throughout the individual inscription page (particularly in the commentary) to take a user to other inscriptions in the collection. Clicking on any of those citations leads to the relevant inscription. Every reference in the bibliography is cross-linked to the full bibliography page, and Trismegistos and EDH (Epigraphic Database Heidelberg) numbers link to those project websites.

The pull-down menu for “Sites” allows one to browse, by county, by geographical section (English, Hadrian’s Wall, Scotland, Wales), by Latin name, or by a scalable map featuring the 207 locations across Britain that have yielded inscriptions:. The map in particular will encourage discussion about the impact of Rome on the British landscape.

Each “Site” page then provides a thumbnail summary of the inscriptions found, with links to the location in other geo-referenced projects such as Pleiades, OS OpenSpace, GeoNames, and OpenStreetMap. For those locations for which an ancient name is available, a list of the variations of the names and their sources are included (example below; ancient names on left, below map).

Browseable Linked Data (Digital Indices)

The menu of “Linked Data” provides the sort of information supplied by a traditional index, but of course, with a digital resource, a user can move easily and quickly to a particular inscription or a group of inscriptions with a single click. The following “Browseable Linked Data Types” are available:

The first three types listed provide standard information, but the way RIB sets out “Relations” is something that would be virtually impossible in print publication.  Every piece of information in the table (example below) is clickable and provides a pathway to more information.

The section on “Roles” functions effectively like the traditional Vocabula Index, but it includes terms in both English and Latin. Clicking on the very first term, “accursed,” takes a user to a full list of those who are so named in defixiones, with name, tablet, relevant line of text, and more provided. The next term in the “Roles” section is actarius (“short-hand writer, accountant”), a term that appears in four inscriptions, and so on.

Conclusion

When I introduced students in my (American) undergraduate classes to five different epigraphic projects online, they were happy to explore Roman Inscriptions of Britain endlessly. The students did not mind that the inscriptions were often fragmentary.

Rather, RIB is so rich with hyperlinks and linked data that they found the site fascinating. The students loved, for example, the list of every individual mentioned among RIB’s 2,400 inscriptions. Most individuals are listed in a single inscription, so the compilation is more of a list than an index. That mattered not at all. Roman Inscriptions of Britain is eminently useable: intuitive, easy to understand, easy to navigate. The interface is well designed and the information well organized. All of this makes a journey through the material fascinating, engaging, and educational.

(Header Image: Detail, "Wall Mile 29.' Buidling inscription from Hadrian's Wall. Image by Mike Bishop via Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.)

Metadata:

Title: Roman Inscriptions of Britain

Description: This website hosts Volume One of The Roman Inscriptions of Britain, R.G. Collingwood's and R.P. Wright's magisterial edition of 2,401 monumental inscriptions from Britain found prior to 1955. It also incorporates all Addenda and Corrigenda published in the 1995 reprint of RIB (edited by R.S.O. Tomlin) and the annual survey of inscriptions published in Britannia since.

URL: https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/

Name: Vanderbilt, Scott

    (for digital interface, based on the printed work of R.G. Collingwood and R.P. Wright)

Collection Title: Roman Inscriptions of Britain (print)

Date created: RIB has been online since at least 2014 and continues to be expanded and enhanced.

Date accessed: 2017-06-21

Availability: free

Rights: Texts licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0). Photographs and images reserved to respective owners unless otherwise stated.

Classification: Linked open data, Latin, epigraphy, mapping

Rebecca R. Benefiel's picture

Rebecca Benefiel is Associate Professor of Classics at Washington and Lee University. Her research interests focus on the social and cultural history of the Roman Empire, and Latin epigraphy. She is a supervisor for the Epigraphic Database Roma, and is overseeing the preparation of ancient graffiti from Pompeii and Herculaneum. She can be reached at benefielr@wlu.edu.

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