Yesterday afternoon’s (Friday 17th August) seminar in the Digital Classicist series was presented by Charles Crowther of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents in Oxford, on the subject of ‘A Virtual Research Environment for the Study of Documents and Manuscripts’. The project on which Dr. Crowther was reporting (mentioned here back in May) is the successor to the BVREH (Building a VRE for the Humanities) and VWSAD (Virtual Workspace for the Study of Ancient Documents) projects, which ran during the last couple of years.
The new VRE, which recently won two years’ funding and is at an early stage of development, will be targeted explicitly at epigraphic and papyrological texts (although it could easily be repurposed for medieval or other manuscripts). The aim is to create a working environment to replicate for scholars at a distance the opportunities for collaborative research offered by bringing several experts into a room at the same time to look at high-quality images of a papyrus or inscription. In addition they intend to take advantage of the many online research tools that are available (e.g. PHI Greek Inscriptions, especially the new concordance tool; the Epigraphik Datenbank Clauss/Slaby; the more sophisticated Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg; the Photographic Archive of Papyri in the Cairo Museum; the Duke Databank of Documentary Papyri, etc.), as well as more “deep” resources–scholarly publications such as Aphrodisias in Late Antiquity or Vindolanda Tablets Online.
It would also be valuable to integrate this system with the excavators who might be digging up new inscriptions and need an expert to look at them. The Silchester excavations, who use the VERA (VRE for Archaeology) environment and keep detailed electronic notes, would be an ideal candidate for such collaboration, except that they very rarely unearth inscribed objects. Vindolanda do not have such sophisticated electronic recording methods, or else their many and difficult texts would be ideal. A first pilot collaboration might be with the excavations at Zeugma, where the excavators are aware of the importance of calling upon specialists in particular fields (such as epigraphy) to work with the excavators on their finds.
This is a project that is worth watching. The VRE will be run on the Oxford servers in the first instance, and other collaborators will be very welcome to help test the environment as soon as there is something running. Ultimately the tools created by this project will be Open Source, and so can be used by anyone with an interest in working collaboratively on documents, inscriptions, papyri, or manuscripts in an environment that integrates multiple freely available resources to enrich the editor’s research experience.