Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.12.30 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.12.30

Antonio E. Felle, Anita Rocco (ed.), Off the Beaten Track: Epigraphy at the Borders. Proceedings of 6th EAGLE International Event (24-25 September 2015, Bari, Italy).   Oxford:  Archaeopress, 2016.  Pp. vi, 154.  ISBN 9781784913229.  £30.00.  

Reviewed by Ortal-Paz Saar, Utrecht University (

Open access
[Titles and authors are listed at the end of the review.]

Walking on a beaten track should be easy—this is where everybody walks. But also, precisely because of this, the beaten track may be crowded and tiresome, and those who choose to leave it, venturing on less-known paths, are rewarded with fresh (in)sights. Some of these are presented in the current volume, along with the challenges that stem from novel ways of engaging with the subject matter, which is digital epigraphy.

EAGLE (Europeana Network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy) is a scholarly network seeking to provide user-friendly access to digitized inscriptions from the Graeco-Roman world. It does so by uniting under one portal,, a large number of academic partners, who supply the digital content stored in their databases. These partners range from major institutions like the University of Oxford or La Sapienza in Rome, to specific digital epigraphy projects, like the Inscriptions of Aphrodisias. The content they provide is aggregated by EAGLE. Thus, instead of going through numerous epigraphic databases in order to find all the inscriptions mentioning, e.g., sub ascia, a user interested in this enigmatic funerary formula needs only to write it in the EAGLE search engine, obtaining results from seven different databases. In addition to maintaining this useful portal, EAGLE also hosts international conferences on digital epigraphy, where the network partners discuss their ongoing projects. The reviewed volume comprises the proceedings of their 6th conference, held in Bari in 2015. This event focused on untraditional epigraphic resources, such as graffiti and brickstamps, archaic Latin inscriptions such as the Duenos vase, and medieval texts woven on blankets. The resulting volume brings together seven papers that deal with relatively atypical data, portraying the complexities entailed by digitizing and encoding such materials, as well as attempted solutions.

As every digital epigraphist knows, not everything can be digitized or encoded with the same ease. Although the EpiDoc guidelines, used by all the conference participants, were specifically designed for encoding ancient documents, they still lack answers for many challenges raised by these texts. Inevitably, some inscriptions will always need the human eye to make full sense of them. A picture is worth not only a thousand words, but also, at times, many lines of code. And in fact, some topics come up repeatedly in different papers, for instance the difficulties caused by non-textual elements in the inscriptions. These may be geometric or figurative decorations, sketches of humans and animals, or undecipherable iconographic features. How should such elements be encoded, so as to allow the inclusion of as much detail as possible, without interfering with the readability of the text? Other common challenges refer to the layout of inscriptions. As opposed to classical Graeco-Roman epigraphy, the inscriptions discussed here run in awkward directions: boustrophedon and “false boustrophedon,” “spilled” letters, retrograde, upturned, and letters within letters. Thus, a dose of creativity is required of digital epigraphists, who sometimes need to invent new EpiDoc values in order to encode these unusual layouts.

This creativity is apparent in Giulia Sarullo’s contribution, “The Encoding Challenge of the ILA Project,” which deals with the corpus of Iscrizioni Latine Archaiche. Her clearly written paper illustrates the difficulties faced by a digital epigraphist who attempts to encode textual vestiges of the 7th-5th centuries BCE, and puts forward some solutions. As noted by other authors in the volume (pp. 79, 133), Sarullo’s solutions could be implemented in additional projects dealing with different inscription types.

Another clear and nicely illustrated paper is that by Rebecca R. Benefiel and Holly M. Sypniewski, “Images and Text on the Walls of Herculaneum: Designing the Ancient Graffiti Project.” The authors demonstrate the many challenges (not to say difficulties) in digitizing the graffiti corpus from Herculaneum and Pompeii. This comprises both textual and figurative inscriptions, and occasionally a combination of both. How may such data, consisting of thousands of items, best be digitized, so as to be searchable by users of a database? How much is it open to interpretation (e.g., it is not always clear whether a man or a woman is depicted in the graffito)? What should be done when the graffiti are no longer extant, but appear only in previous publications of the CIL? Benefiel and Sypniewski raise many questions and put forward a few potential solutions, which are still under development. It will be interesting to see the results of this project in a few years’ time.

“Is still Arabia at the margins of digital Epigraphy? Challenges in the digitization of the pre-Islamic inscriptions in the project DASI,” by Alessandra Avanzini et al., focuses on one major section of the Digital Archive for the Study of pre-Islamic Arabian Inscriptions. DASI maintains a beautiful and user-friendly website, and the authors explain its structure and functions. This paper is somewhat more difficult to follow, since many of its technical details are not accompanied by examples. Nonetheless, many digital epigraphy projects could look at DASI as a source of inspiration in terms of clarity of presentation.

Anita Rocco’s “From Officina Lapidaria to D.I.Y.: Encoding inscriptions from the Christian Roman Catacombs” touches on a fascinating topic: the manufacturing of inscriptions. Rocco begins by surveying what is known about the process of production in the Roman period (only a few details), continues by zooming in on underground funerary texts (a major divergence from typical stone-incised inscriptions), and proceeds to describe the means for encoding this information digitally. Her discussion focuses on the Epigraphic Database Bari, a pioneering enterprise in the field of digital epigraphy, erected in the 1980s. It is relevant, however, to all other attempts to encode funerary, and particularly subterranean, inscriptions. For instance, some catacomb inscriptions were produced using two writing techniques, being both engraved and painted, sometimes at different points in time. This feature necessitated the addition of terms to the controlled vocabularies of the database, as well as a digital notation designating the reuse of some stone surfaces. Another question brought up by Rocco concerns the size of the inscriptions’ support surface. While this is easily determined for stone plaques, it is less so when the text was incised on wet mortar closing the loculus where the defunct had been laid to rest.

“Challenges of Byzantine Epigraphy in the 21st Century,” by Andreas Rhoby, touches, among other issues, on an important programmatic aspect: the sustainability of the digital resources. “Is there any guarantee that the Northern Black Sea database will still be accessible thirty years from now?” asks Rhoby (p. 88), and this type of question is one that every digital humanities scholar must keep in mind. His proposed solution, regarding the Byzantine material, supports the production of both print and digital editions.

The paper by Luna Cacchioli, Nadia Cannata and Alessandra Tiburzi, “EDV – Italian Medieval Epigraphy in the Vernacular (IX-XV c.): a new database,” describes an interesting enterprise of digitizing about 450 inscriptions in volgare. These texts vary greatly in terms of language, date, purpose, execution technique and type of support surface, constituting a corpus only insofar as they are not in Latin (p. 93). Obviously, this resulted in numerous challenges for the digitizers; at times, not even the language of an inscription can be defined with ease. This is the longest paper in the volume and the most historically oriented, providing rich (but somewhat superfluous) details about the contents and visual aspects of the inscriptions. Given the wide audience of the volume, it would have been useful to include an English translation of the vernacular passages quoted, or simply to remove most of them. The EDV project is, however, quite remarkable, and it will be interesting to see it launched online.

“Signals, Symbols and Spaces in the Ashmolean Latin Collection,” by Hannah Cornwell and Jane Masséglia, describes the AshLI project, which aims to digitize an assortment of ca. 400 items inscribed in the Latin language and currently housed in the famous museum in Oxford. The artifacts range from stone monuments to gems and sling bullets, once again, a variety that engenders encoding complications similar to those encountered above.

Stylistically and linguistically, the volume would have benefitted from more careful editing. The English of some of the papers is difficult to follow, presenting numerous calques from Italian, along with grammatical and typographical errors. These aspects, however, are inessential given the subject matter, which is ultimately technical, and can be understood despite the cumbersome language.

As can also be glimpsed from the introductory papers by Silvia Orlandi and Antonio Enrico Felle and in the concluding words of Pietro Liuzzo, the projects presented in the volume, though very diverse in terms of chronology, geography and focus, share numerous challenges. Some of them are still works in progress and have not yet been launched, others already have a long web presence but nonetheless need to overcome new encoding hurdles. Precisely because of this, the volume will be of interest to digital epigraphists everywhere, also outside the beaten tracks of the Graeco-Latin world.

Table of Contents

Foreword. Silvia Orlandi
Off the Beaten Track. Epigraphy at the Borders. An Introduction. Antonio Enrico Felle
The Encoding Challenge of the ILA Project. Giulia Sarullo
Images and Text on the Walls of Herculaneum: Designing the Ancient Graffiti Project. Rebecca R. Benefiel and Holly M. Sypniewski
Is still Arabia at the margins of digital Epigraphy? Challenges in the digitization of the pre-Islamic inscriptions in the project DASI. Alessandra Avanzini, Annamaria De Santis, Daniele Marotta and Irene Rossi
From Officina Lapidaria to D.I.Y. Encoding inscriptions from the Christian Roman Catacombs. Anita Rocco
Challenges of Byzantine Epigraphy in the 21st Century. A Short Note. Andreas Rhoby
EDV - Italian Medieval Epigraphy in the Vernacular (IX-XV c.): a new database. Luna Cacchioli, Nadia Cannata and Alessandra Tiburzi
Signals, Symbols, and Spaces in the Ashmolean Latin Collection. Hannah Cornwell and Jane Masséglia
Epigraphy out there. Pietro Liuzzo
Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010