Tales of many places: Data Infrastructure for Named Entities

The use of computational methods for ancient world geography are still very much dominated by the URI based gazetteer. These powerful and flexible reference lists, trail-blazed by projects such as the Pleaides and Pelagios projects, allow resources to be linked by common spatial referents they share. However, while computers love URIs unconditionally, the relationship they have with place is more ambivalent: a simmering critical tension which has given rise to what we call the Spatial Humanities. This critical tension between the ways humanists see place and the way computers deal with it has highlighted important geo-philosophical principles for the study of the ancient world. For me, one of the most important of these is the principle that places as entities which exist in some form of human discourse such as text, and places as locations which can be situated within the (modern) framework of latitude and longitude, must be separated. Gazetteers allow us to do this, which is why they are so important.

My 2017 kicked off with a meeting in a snowy Leipzig (see above), Digital Infrastructure for Named Entities Data, which sought to further problematize the use of these computational methods to support the investigation of past place. As might be expected of an event driven by Pelagios, the use of URI-based gazetteers featured heavily. The Pleagios Commons was presented by the event’s organizer, Chiara Palladino, as both a community and an infrastructure. It centres on the general concept of “place”, and clusters of material which share the same properties. Pelagios may be seen, Chiara said, as the “Connecting structure behind the system”, aiming at a decentralized and federated approach to provide maps which combine geographical, chronological and biographical data. The event’s exploration of this key, overarching concept highlighted three main issues:

  1. Hodological views of past space

Ancient geographies should be seen in the context of hodological space – as pathways through the world, not points on top of it. Hodology, a concept discussed by several speakers, views space from the perspective of experience and mobility.  Hodological space concerns the tension between intent, possibility, and real (embodied) experience. It is frequently bidimensional, as evidenced in the example given by Sergio Brilliante, of western Crete in the Periplus (mariner’s account) of Pseudo-Skylax, which displayed the best route for travel, not the cartographically optimal one. I was struck by the modern parallel of the WWII Cretan “runner”, George Psychoundakis, who, in his riveting account of his role in the resistance in Crete, measured the distances over which his wartime missions took him on foot by the number of cigarettes he smoked on the journey.

It was noted that in Arabic scripts, geographic areas are generally not measured, except for the purposes of agriculture. A hodological approach was described as a counterpoint to “scientific method” in geography: one can frame geographic accuracy either in terms of “accurate” Cartesian maps, or as the consistent application of geo criteria.

  1. Name neutrality

Like any form of humanistic space, hodological space is never neutral. Place references in humanistic discourse are often the result of mutivocal, multi-authorial and partial accounts; and the workshop bore a heavy emphasis on this. Many surviving Classical texts are written by Greek or Athenian authors, so there is a strong Athenocentricism and Graecocentricism to them. Non-Greeks tend to be “hidden”. This seemed to me somewhat reminiscent of the Mercator projection (which most modern Web cartography relies upon), which “shrinks” mid-latitude countries and accentuates those at higher and lower latitudes, thus visually privileging the developed world at the expense of the developing countries (who could forget the scene in the West Wing when the Cartographers for Social Equality regale CJ Cregg on the subject). Similarly toponyms are not neutral, a problem which the separating of platial concept and platical location can help address. Our own Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus is attempting to do this through application of “attestations” of agnostic geographic entities, an approach also being used by  Sinai Rusinek in her Hebrew gazetteer. Similarly Thomass Carlson described the Syriaca.org gazetteer, which links cultural heritage to texts in the Syriac language. Carlson noted that names are a linguistic strategy not absolute entities.  The nature of names means that disambiguation does not work consistently. Even an expert reader might not be able to determine out what exactly a toponym refers to. While many ancient world gazetteers rely on URIs, URIs can never replace unambiguous linguistic names.  Context free URIs, which the gazetteer community has long relied on, are no longer sufficient to represent non-neutral humanistic place.

  1. Ontological (mis)alignment

Finally, a point well made by Maurizio Lana was that geographical ontologies must be bottom up to be truly representative. In his presentation he described the Geolat project, which deals with the use of spatial ontologies, and again frames names as cultural patterns. There is a driving force which pulls readers towards names, to what is easily identifiable. It is necessary to separate the study of entities from naming. This means that an ontology that is developed for one purpose might not be suitable for others. For example, in the Heritage Gazetteer of Cyprus we make use of Geonames as a means of locating archaeological entities, but the Feature Type list of Geonames is not nearly detailed or granular enough to adequately describe the different kinds of features which exist in the gazetteer. Therefore where geo-ontologies have come from, and why they do not align, can lead to very interesting conclusions about the nature of historical spatial structures.

As often, there was a great background discussion with colleagues who were not physically present via Twitter, which I have captured as a raw Storify. Among the most engaging of these discussions was an exchange as to whether a place had to have a name, or rather whether place acts as a conceptual container for events (in which case what are they?). My previous belief in the former position found itself severely tested by this exchange, and the papers which touched on hodological views of the past provided reinforcements. I think I am now a follower of the latter view. Thank you to those Twitter friends for this, you know who you are.

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One Response to “Tales of many places: Data Infrastructure for Named Entities”

  1. Editors’ Choice: Tales of Many Places – Data Infrastructure for Named Entities Says:

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