Pelagios: a Sea of Connections

I’m Leif Isaksen, one of Graeme, Simon and Dragana’s colleagues in the University of Southampton Archaeology Department. This week the MOOC has been thinking about the Mediterranean as a sea of connections between ancient harbours and settlements, and the importance of Portus as a hub within it. This level of interconnectivity had an enormous impact on the lives and culture of the people who lived within and beyond the borders of the Empire. Where once exposure to new people, products and ideas had been comparatively difficult, it soon became difficult to avoid the barrage.

Along with archaeology I am also interested in Web Science – the study of the World Wide Web – which has of course become our own sea of connections, and one that is rapidly changing our own world. Just a few years ago the only way most people could learn about a place like Portus was to go to the library or bookshop and hope they had a book about it. In particular I want to increase links between the many online resources that offer us information about Portus and any other place in the ancient world. Some of these resources are created by professional or academic archaeologists, classicists and historians, while others are produced by people – perhaps like you – who simply have a passion for the past and are keen to contribute.

The Pelagios project (pelagios is ancient Greek for ‘sea-like’), led by the University of Southampton, along with the Open University, the Austrian Institute for Technology, and with a growing list of more than 40 international partners, does just that. It uses a technological approach called Linked Open Data that allows us to hyperlink references to ancient places in maps, texts and images to many other such references. Much like Portus, it doesn’t replace the network, but facilitates its growth and the flow of information throughout it, allowing us to find out much more than we could on any individual webpage or simply by typing a query into Google.

Link to heatmap

The map at the link above shows one example of what we can do with all these links (it’s best to view it using an up-to-date browser like Chrome, Safari or Firefox). You can see straight away where much of the knowledge that we have about the ancient world comes from. If you zoom in closer you will begin to see much more detail, and if you click on one of the places in it you will get a pop-up Balloon that tells you about that place and gives you a link to resources about it. Try following the links and see what you can discover.

Pelagios is a continual and collaborative work-in-progress, so new content and new functionality is being added all the time. Our current goal is to introduce place references from all the extant maps and geographic descriptions from antiquity so that we can learn more about what the Romans and Greeks thought their world looked like (which may have been quite different from the way we picture it). You can follow our progress, find out more and leave your comments on the Pelagios blog. We hope to see you there!

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