Digital Research in the Study of Classical Antiquity

Clare Thornley (Department of Information Studies, University College London, London, UK)

Journal of Documentation

ISSN: 0022-0418

Article publication date: 26 July 2011




Thornley, C. (2011), "Digital Research in the Study of Classical Antiquity", Journal of Documentation, Vol. 67 No. 4, pp. 742-744.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2011, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book is a fascinating overview of the challenges of researching classical antiquity and the extent to which developing digital technologies can help overcome and change the nature of those challenges. More importantly, in terms of LIS, the case studies it discusses provide rich examples of almost every single theoretical quandary that we grapple with.

The introduction discusses whether digital technologies have transformed as well as pervaded research in classical antiquity. This raises the fundamental question of the exact way in which digital technologies change how we find out about, interpret and share knowledge about objects and texts. There is also a sense of a possible tension between those who focus on the objects and the texts and perhaps those who may appear to be more interested in what the new technologies can offer. As a discipline classics seems to share our concerns in LIS as to what those who are experts on documents (in the broadest sense) have to bring to research over and above those who are experts in the developing technologies of computerised document analysis. What do these new technologies mean for the identity of the discipline and its place in academia?

The book is divided up into three sections: part I discusses archaeology and geography; part II discusses text and language; part III discusses infrastructure and disciplinary issues. Chapter 1, in part I, includes some interesting examples of how digital technology is just tremendously useful in gathering and storing the enormous amounts of data collected on archaeological digs and makes the clear but sometimes neglected point that computers become useful at the point where memory fails. Chapter 2 makes some very pertinent observations about the positive role of the private collector and commercial organisations in providing digital access to ancient artefacts. Chapter 3 discusses the more theoretical question of the role of geospatial technology and explores the distinction between understanding the past construction of space as opposed to representing and describing it. Technology can help in collecting and analysing geographical information but it is argued that historical reconstruction remains a fundamentally creative process.

The discussion in part II on text and language is perhaps of most interest to the LIS community. The question of the relative role of context and content, a central problem in information retrieval, is discussed in terms of document interpretation and the distinctions made between text, monument and landscape (in chapter 4) provides new insights into this issue. Chapter 5 examines the role of virtual research environments in enabling collaboration over distance in the classics. The importance of the improved quality in digitisation that makes objects not only more accessible, but also more legible for scholars is highlighted. Chapter 6 discusses in some detail the problem of analysing Greek text both for scholars who want the most “definitive version” and for those who wish to study in detail how different versions and interpretations have changed over time. Digital technologies can allow texts which can perform both these functions to co‐exist as one document.

Part III discusses some infrastructural, educational and disciplinary issues with digital technologies. The practical problem of trying to ensure permanent access to documents in the digital environment is discussed in chapters 7 and 8. This is put in context by providing historical examples of why certain documents survive. It is argued that wide distribution and copying are often the best method of preservation so that, in general, wide access though technology will make the permanent loss of documents much less likely. Chapter 9 discusses a case study of e‐learning in the classics and is the most convincing argument I have ever read on the use of technology in education. It clearly states the problem the technology is meant to solve and provides good examples of how it can aid in the learning objective of realising that objects are open to different interpretations.

Chapter 10 will, I think, be a familiar and important discussion to those in LIS. It addresses the question of what, if anything, is distinctive about classicists? What exactly is their relationship with computer scientists and how should it be developed? I particularly liked this chapter as it refers encouragingly often to the need for bravery. This reminds me of my favourite line from Beowulf on the role of courage in adversity. During a swimming contest when he is struggling through freezing waters full of unseen and vicious creatures, he takes heart by reminding himself that “fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good”. Technology may be a potential threat to cherished ideas of scholarship and there are certainly other economic and political threats to research and education. This book reinforced for me, however, that an understanding of documents and information is as essential as the technology transforming it if we are really to further rigorous research. Thus we have reason to be brave and also as the concluding sentence in the book observes “what other choice do we have”?

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