Recently I wrote a rather long guest blog post for OpenPompei, an Italian group interested in Pompeii, open data, and community engagement, about the PBMP. The post turned into a manifesto about what I’d like to do with the PBMP and for digital archaeology at Pompeii more generally. Naturally, it belongs here as well (reblogged):

Wishing for Data, Working for Data: a manifesto for an Open Pompeii


Post by Eric Poehler

An Open Pompeii, for me, has been a dream since 1998, since the first time I ever thought about the archaeology of the ancient city. That dream is recalled almost every day: each time I need to find an obscure book, make a map, access an archive, or visit a building on the site. The dream became a calling in 2007 when I discovered that a colleague and I had each, unaware of the other, been spending hundreds of hours digitizing the landscape of Pompeii to run our analyses. How much better might those hundreds of hours been spent in the context of our research? How much more might we understand? That experience was the origin of Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project and the beginning of a recognition for me that we are losing information and losing opportunity by failing to cooperate and failing to organize. I was therefore elated to learn of OpenPompei and the SCRIPTORIVM (and its impressive video announcement), not only because it represented a step towards wider collaboration, but also because it came from within the Italian community. I’d long wished for a like-minded Italian community, and now it seems that wish is coming true. Thus, it seems appropriate to share a few other wishes for Pompeii. What follows is a ‘wish list’ of projects that I’ve been interested to see started, pushed forward, and in some cases to be finished.

“Spatializing the city”: Attaching data to places and architectures.

The important explosions of research on Pompeii over the last 250 years on Pompeii have, in one way, been exactly that: intense fragmentations of a unified urban environment into categories of study (archaeology, art history, classics, epigraphy, history, etc….), the instruments of scholarly communication (articles, lithographs, manuscripts, and now 3D models), and in many cases literal separation from the city (into museums, private collections, and the pockets of visitors). It is time to bring the data back home. There are innumerable opportunities to put the representations of frescoes, mosaics, inscriptions, and objects back into their natural spatial environments and we are fortunate to have at our disposal remarkable works of aggregation to accomplish this: Pompei. Pitture e Mosaici, Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, Nova Bibliotheca Pompeiana, Studio sulle provenienze degli oggetti rinvenuti negli scavi borbonici del Regno di Napoli, Pompeii in Pictures, Fortuna Visiva, among others. Yet we seem to find ourselves in the paradox to stand at once on the shoulders of giants and in their shadows. We have thus far been unable or unwilling to take on both the genius and the failings of these scholars and projects in order to do something more. Happily, this is beginning to change.

The Ancient Graffiti Project, lead by Rebecca Benefiel and Sara Sprenkle, has accepted the challenge to put the epigraphic record back in order, allowing users to search for graffiti by content, class, and location. Imagine (as at least Paavo Castren and Henrik Mouritsen must have done) what questions we might ask about the epigraphic landscape when the physical landscape is a companion rather than an obstacle. I wish this project all the greatest success.

We need to do this same work for the frescoes and mosaics. Recently Domenico Esposito has shown the great value of not only studying a specific wall painting style, but also considering its spread across the city. Surely geographically locating all the information about wall and floor decorations contained in Pompei: Pompei: Pitture e Mosaici (PPM) – styles, subject matter, materials, etc. – will create a whole new universe of questions for art historians and others. For those who are interested in this topic, you’ll be happy to know that through the exceptional efforts of some great students (esp. Tess Brickley, Sarah Chen, and Ethan Liu) we have scanned the entire PPM and created a beta CAD file of almost every room in every building in Pompeii, each individually named with the room label given in the PPM. The CAD file is available here, but for copyright reasons, sections of the PPM scans are available by request.

Similarly, recent books and articles by Miko Flohr, Steven Ellis, Pia Kastenmeier, and Nicholas Monteix (among others) have all brought the economic questions of production, consumption, and retail activities down to the level to the individual room. These questions too are ready to be explored further and expanded upon by incorporating their data into a spatial frame. Much of this work has focused on chronological change as well as identification and description, which brings us to an even greater challenge to the spatial representation of Pompeian data: objects and stratigraphy. Like the difficulties the Ancient Graffiti Project faces in precisely relocating individual inscriptions, the definition of find spots from the early excavation reports can be a significant challenge. It is one, however, we should no longer avoid for its difficulty. With example of Pim Allison’s work on the Casa del Menandro and the publication of the Bourbon era finds by Pagano and Prisciandaro we are in a better place to consider the value of the finds record both the level of the individual room or building and at the scale of the entire city. Once again with the help of fantastic students (Pompeii 492a, Spring 2015) I have been able to digitize and transform Pagano and Prisciandaro’s table of finds of the early excavations and they are now ready for the careful, hard work of attaching them to the urban landscape. The finds records from modern excavations – and more importantly, their stratigraphic descriptions – have even richer and denser evidence to offer. Many research projects have GIS and digital recording procedures incorporated into their fieldwork practices and I urge them to share those data as soon as they are able, perhaps even as part of their initial reports, but hopefully not long after final publication.

The Pompeii Quadriporticus Project will soon be doing just that: sharing in multiple formats the outputs of our research for scholars and the lay public alike. We’ve already begun sharing our images. For scholars, we anticipate soon sharing tabular and descriptive data accompanied by drawings and matrices of our interpretations, further supported by 3D renderings and GPR results. For the public, and especially for visitors to Pompeii, we are planning to create online a series of nested histories of the Quadriporticus – growing in detail and complexity as the user desires – that are geolocated so that, like targeted advertisements, people can read about the past on their own device without large placards detracting from the experience of the past. There are countless areas of the city that can benefit from the same kind of geolocated information.

Equally, there are countless documents that are waiting in archives and libraries that need to be online and available for use. Archives like those of Halstead van der Poel in the Getty (which draws on Warscher documents), or those collections of papers of former superintendentsrecently discussed in the Rivista di Studi Pompeiani hold a unique set of information and unique perspective on the great excavations and research agendas of the 20th century. To that end, perhaps it is time to consider an oral history project of the many important Pompeian scholars – previous superintendents and directors of the site, heads of foreign research projects, independent researchers, etc. – whose work asked the questions that we in the 21st century are now trying to answer. For the 18th and 19th centuries, collections of artworks and maps can offer a great deal of evidence about the early excavations. Projects such as the excellent Fortuna Visiva are already in place, but the need for systematic and comprehensive collection and open sharing of these illustrative documents remains a desideratum. In exploring the question of early maps, once again with my students, we created a Zotero site of the mapsknown in the Corpus Topographicum Pompeianum and attempted to locate and some cases, digitize these maps. Combining a complete list of maps of the excavations with the CAD file of room-level spaces, it will be possible to create a maps that shows the 250 year process, year-by-year and in some cases day-by-day, of Pompeii’s disinterment. The pace of excavation, the recovery of objects, the locations of work, all can be normalized and made comparable by the giving them spatial properties in a GIS.

For the PBMP, there’s a short wish list of features and capabilities that I’m hopeful to realize in the future. The first is the creation of a means to discover, receive, and ingest new citations into the bibliography. This is a problem with many obvious open access and community-based solutions in addition to need for the technical expertise to implement it. A second desired feature is a natural language processing procedure to parse the many full-text objects attached (or in the process of being attached) to our bibliography in order to find all – and all the meaningful – locations in Pompeii mentioned in the text. What is meaningfully discussed in a text and what is merely mentioned, and which does the user need, are issues to resolve. Next on the list is a flexible and intuitive design for a versioning archive of the spatial data with the purpose to serve not only the different versions of the PBMP base data, but also to make available the many different interpretations of the site that are represented by different shapes of space. That shops are attached to the shape of a house, or not, has important ramifications for how we interpret the entire ancient city from a number of perspectives: when attached one assumes economic dependence if not direct ownership of the shop by the house; when separate, one presents a landscape of far greater independence in property ownership and the assumption of an economic class to own those shops. The shape of space matters and it is crucial not to hard code historically meaningful assumptions into digital representations without making those assumptions explicit AND without offering at least the opportunity to choose a different set data with a different set of assumptions. Finally, I’m wanting and working toward a connection from the bibliography to the GIS such that when bibliographic search results are returned, the meaningful locations contained within those results are displayed on a map to accompany the list of citations. I’ve called this an “instant gazetteer” that will change and narrow with every new search.

These are some of the more GIS based items on my “wish list” for an Open Pompeii. Nearly all of these projects can start with the initiative of a single person who is fascinated by Pompeii and who believes that fascination will only grow through engagement and contribution. Anyone can find and add content to online platforms: citations, maps, artworks, etc. Secondary teachers and university professors can engage their students in projects that not only educate, but also don’t waste the effort expended in the process of learning. Build lessons that build things. Let me unpack that a bit further by analogy. Lifting weights builds muscles. What if the movement of those weights could be used to power the lights at the gym? Learning builds intelligence. What if the act of learning increased the total ‘weight’ of content for the next act of learning? Events like SCRIPTORIVM and community-building groups like OpenPompei are especially important right now as we regularly lose as much information about the ancient world into silos of data as we do from the continuous, if irregular collapses of walls and crumbling of plasters. Even some conservation efforts conceal evidence in the name of preserving it: one needs only to look at the long tradition of covering walls with a mortar to prevent its erosion, but at the cost of hiding all the details of its history of construction. While the community of Pompeianisti cannot save the site directly, we can do incredible work to support the work of conservation by providing a broad, dynamic, and most of all open sets of data that can be used in planning and research. Surely the worst thing we might do is to squander the resources we have by duplicating efforts the way my colleague and I did back in 2007.

As a researcher, I’ve realized it is not within my expertise to claim (though I’m not without opinions) what are the best ways to save and/or to use Pompeii. As a foreigner, moreover, it’s not my place to make demands. But, as one of many committed specialists and community members, I can make a difference. In my case, I can put aside the natural inclinations to retain control over the data and research products I’ve produced (and, importantly, paid for) and “give it away” to others in imperfect, incomplete, or “in progress” forms. My aims are not wholly altruistic, however. I do want and do claim authorship and credit for the digital products I’ve made and I do hope that in making them widely available those digital objects will build a legacy for the efforts that created them. At the same time, I also wish to be part of an on-going philosophical shift in the way that we create and share data, especially academic data. It is a shift that we desperately need. In my opinion, building a data set or even describing that data in a narrative is no longer enough, one needs to take their ultimate validation in the number of people those data reach and how many choose to use it. For academics, such a shift is not merely structural; its not about how we peer-review databases or how we evaluate digital work. It’s also a cultural shift. We need to learn to be comfortable with the reality that data are messy and to share them anyway. We need to be willing to move the entire discipline ahead, along with our own specific publications, by sharing imperfect, incomplete, and in-progress works. And yes, we need to do this within the structures of academic labor and power (i.e., hiring, promotion, and tenure).

There’s so very much more to say on this topic and at another time I probably will. For this discussion I’ll leave it here by thanking OpenPompei and SCRIPTORIVM for letting me contribute to their noble cause and by taking my own advice, letting the most recent GIS data of the PBMP– imperfect, incomplete, and in-progress as they are– go off for the betterment of our Pompeian community.