It is well known that ancient Athens and its region, Attica, were the birthplace of democracy and the hub for much of the philosophy, politics and art that have defined Western civilisation. But what about its role before the Classical period? What role, if any, did Athens play between 1450 and 500 BC? This is the question posed by the EU-funded LandsofMeaning project, research that was undertaken with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. “This period in history coincides with the start of urban development and the economy, trade and social norms that come with urbanisation,” says Nikolaos Arvanitis, a researcher at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, and LandsofMeaning project coordinator. “Unfortunately, many aspects of these historical processes are poorly understood, largely due to a lack of spatial analysis.” Using modern-day digital mapping technologies like geographical information systems (GIS), researchers are taking another look at the archaeological data derived from this pre-Classical period. The result is new insights into an important but often overlooked part of European history.
A Google Earth for Classical antiquity
At the core of the LandsofMeaning project is an intuitive archaeological information system. Using a combination of CAD software, relational databases and a GIS geodatabase, the system serves as an integrated platform of digital technologies and up-to-date archaeological and sociological instruments. The end result is a mapping system capable of adding topographic values to graphic data and texts, thus providing the archaeological researcher with a more complete, or holistic, view of a particular time and place in history. According to Arvanitis, adding inscriptions and literary sources to the physical features of a map permits spatial enquiries with huge heuristic potential. “We are finally able to really see the ancient Attica landscape and settlement patterns, along with the thinking that went behind these patterns,” he says. “Just imagine a Google Earth of antiquity, but one where you can travel back in time – that’s the essence of what you can do with the LandsofMeaning system.”
A solution for safeguarding cultural heritage
Arvanitis conducted his research from the University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, which is known worldwide as a centre of excellence in archaeology. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to conduct my research from,” says Arvanitis. “The synergy between my supervisor and myself was impeccable, and the entire faculty fully embraced the project.” The faculty even went so far as to incorporate the project into the overall teaching and research agenda. This included organising a special course for PhD candidates on using new digital technologies and the archaeological information system within their own research agenda. Arvanitis also had the opportunity to provide a group of high school students from a disadvantaged Athens neighbourhood with an interactive presentation on the city’s history using the mapping technology developed during the project. “I am proud that through the LandsofMeaning project, we have developed a way to show, and not just tell, a meaningful biography of ancient ways and community building,” adds Arvanitis. “I look forward to continuing to develop the programme, with the end goal being to provide researchers with a solution for evaluating, promoting and safeguarding our cultural heritage at a grand scale.”
LandsofMeaning, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, pre-Classical Athens, archaeologist, digital mapping, Athens, Attica, Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme, geographical information systems, GIS, Google Earth, antiquity