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Text, materiality, and multiculturalism at the crossroads of the ancient Mediterranean

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CROSSREADS (Text, materiality, and multiculturalism at the crossroads of the ancient Mediterranean)

Reporting period: 2022-04-01 to 2023-09-30

Epigraphic evidence, that is texts inscribed on stone and other durable materials, is an essential source for studying the history, language and culture of ancient societies. CROSSREADS undertakes an in-depth study of the epigraphic evidence from ancient Sicily, across all languages and materials and across the whole historical period (7th cent. BCE to 7th cent. CE). The project uses this to offer a new analysis not only of written culture but also of the cultural history of the island. This is made possible through combining epigraphic, historical, linguistic, palaeographic and archaeometric approaches, all of which can be undertaken at a far greater level of resolution and complexity than previously, and all of which can be integrated and combined in new ways, thanks to the contemporary development of powerful tools and methods in the digital humanities.

The core of the project is the development of a comprehensive, digitally encoded corpus of the epigraphic texts from ancient Sicily, supported by high resolution imagery. Based initially on published data, the corpus is being transformed by intensive cataloguing and recording of epigraphic material in collections across the island. To that end, members of the project are undertaking the identification, detailed autopsy-based study, and photography of all the inscribed stones and other objects preserved on the island.
Building upon this corpus, the project has three major sub-projects, all now underway:
1. Linguistic analysis of the corpus: methods of linguistic analysis and socio-linguistic study have become increasingly sophisticated, but these have yet to be applied systematically to an epigraphic corpus and have the potential to offer new light on the interaction between languages – and peoples - on the island in antiquity. 2. Petrographic classification of the inscribed stones: carving epigraphic texts on stone is a public act, and the choice of material is both an economic and a cultural choice, as well as a practical one; but intensive archaeometric methods are required for systematic analysis and further study. 3.Palaeographic study of the corpus: systematic palaeographic analysis is rarely attempted within epigraphic study, despite being a traditional method of epigraphic research. The application of digital methods of annotation, developed in mediaeval palaeography, enables the exploitation of the images and text in the corpus for rigorous analysis.
The work of all three sub-projects intersects, since language, material and writing practices all directly influence one another. In all three areas, systematic analysis at scale is largely lacking for epigraphic material and the standards to be established will have much wider application to the study of epigraphic evidence.
The Project’s deliverables fall into three categories:
1. A complete open-access TEI corpus of the epigraphic texts and IIIF images, supported by and linked to linguistic, petrograph and palaeographic datasets; 2. A series of studies in linguistics, petrography and palaeography, both in relation to the Sicilian material specifically and for the purpose of advancing the respective fields more generally; 3. The exploitation of the project’s datasets to generate new study of Sicilian epigraphic culture and Sicilian cultural history.
The epigraphic corpus, I.Sicily has been expanded by the PI together with the post-doctoral researchers and other collaborators, to 4,634 items. Over 1,000 inscribed objects have now been directly studied (autopsied) and photographed during the project, and over 1,500 records have been revised. The data has been cleaned and standardised, and is available online at http://sicily.classics.ox.ac.uk/ and https://github.com/ISicily/ISicily. Formal collaborations have been established with the Sicilian Region, the Vatican Commission for Sacred Archaeology, and individual institutions on the island.

Work is well advanced in all three sub-projects:
1. Work to undertake linguistic analysis has developed a number of important new tools to enable key work such as tokenisation and the creation of dependency treebanks, as well as to study abbreviation practices and syntactic variation. A workshop studying abbreviation practice has opened up a new field of study.
2. Petrographic analysis has to date been undertaken across six collections, involving portable X-Ray Fluorescence (450 stones), digital microscopy (300), and laboratory analysis (180) – including isotopic and thin-section analysis. Pigment analysis has been carried out for 41 stones.
3. Palaeographic standards for epigraphy and a new palaeographic annotation tool are in development, based upon pre-existing tools developed for mediaeval manuscript palaeography.

The project and its research have so far been presented at 37 conferences, workshops and seminars. In addition to the online digital corpus, six pieces of software are publicly available on GitHub at various stages of development. Six papers have been published to date, two presenting the project, two on collection history in Siracusa, one on an individual text and one on word-division in Sicilian inscriptions (part of the linguistic sub-project). A further eight publications are in preparation. The project is presented online at https://crossreads.web.ox.ac.uk/.
The rapid expansion of the I.Sicily corpus, underpinned by a level of systematic autopsy and cataloguing that has not been undertaken since the 19th century, already places the study and accessibility of Sicilian epigraphy on a wholly new footing. This dataset enables new types of research both qualitative and quantitative, and constitutes a step change in the quality of data, both text and image. This work will be consolidated and extended in the remaining life of the project, including establishing reliable and citeable methods for granular access to the data (via digital methods such as tokenisation and API-based access, as well as the employment of IIIF standards for the imagery). This will set new standards for the presentation of research-quality epigraphic corpora.

Each of the three sub-projects will establish new standards in the application of their respective methods to epigraphic data, and create a wholly new dataset both for analysis by the project and for future re-use. Moreover, there are additional, not always expected, results emerging from the sub-projects. The work of linguistic analysis is developing new tools for the creation and use of dependency treebank data (a widely used standard in syntactic analysis of text), and this includes an innovative use of multi-dimensional scaling, which will enable cross-linguistic analysis of linguistic structures in particular categories of epigraphic document (and with the potential to reveal linguistic crossover at the syntactic level). In the work of petrographic analysis, the detailed study of the materials employed, using a wide range of archaeometric techniques, has begun to reveal previously unobserved data regarding the methods of text creation, as well as to lay the foundations for the first scientific study of the use of pigments (i.e. paint) in epigraphy. We expect, therefore, to be able to contribute significantly to more general understanding of ancient epigraphic culture in several areas, in addition to the extensive analysis of Sicilian epigraphic culture and the associated cultural history which is the primary objective of the overall project.
http://sicily.classics.ox.ac.uk/inscription/ISic004475 composite image of study and analysis