Rebecca Benefiel, associate professor of classics at Washington and Lee University, and Sara Sprenkle, assistant professor of computer science at W&L, will present their prototype of a new web application involving the ancient graffiti of Pompeii at the Linked Ancient World Data Institute (LAWDI) later this month.
"It's a great honor," said Benefiel, "because this institute has been organized by leading figures in the field of digital humanities; it is being sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and is designed specifically for projects that are working with the ancient world [the ancient Mediterranean and ancient Near East]. This is a very competitive field and we're thrilled that our project was selected to participate."
The institute will bring together an international group of humanities scholars, library and museum professionals, communications and IT specialists, and advanced graduate students who are implementing and planning projects using digital resources (digital humanities).
Benefiel's ongoing research into ancient graffiti has received significant acclaim. She explained how difficult it is to visualize precisely where certain graffiti were located in Pompeii since much wall-plaster, and sometimes even the walls themselves, have now crumbled away. In addition, the graffiti are recorded only briefly and in the two-dimensional format of books, with little visual or spatial documentation. This makes it difficult to get a sense of their aesthetics or relationships to each other, let alone to have a clear idea of where they occur in the city. So she proposed creating a visual interactive model where one could, for example, identify all the graffiti that came from a particular location.
Benefiel is also a supervisor for the Electronic Archive of Greek and Latin Epigraphy (EAGLE), a large international federation of different epigraphic databases that aims to reassess all Latin and Greek inscriptions up to the seventh century A.D., digitize them and make them available online. EAGLE is based primarily in Europe, with two main centers at the University of Rome (La Sapienza) and the University of Heidelberg. Professor Benefiel's W&L classics students are the first American students to participate in the project and have added more than 200 inscriptions to the database already.
"EAGLE is designed so you can search any inscribed text from the classical world," said Benefiel, "but some of my graffiti consist of inscribed drawings as well, and I wanted to figure out a way to visualize inscriptions in an ancient city that was able to work with both text and images."
So Benefiel approached Sprenkle to create a program that would allow researchers to search topographically for graffiti by location.
"Neither one of us came to this project with much of a sense of the other's academic field," said Benefiel, "but Sara has been great at explaining her ideas and she's very good at asking the right questions. As we worked through our ideas, additional questions surfaced, so the last six months have really been an ongoing process of working out how we envision the design of the project, what sort of scale we want it to be and how this project would work in coordination with EAGLE."
Benefiel's students prepared and entered the inscriptions during the winter term, creating the building blocks for the prototype. Then students in Sprenkle's Spring Term computer science course built an interface that can search all the inscriptions of one city-block of Pompeii. The resulting project draws on both teams' efforts and will be demonstrated at the LAWDI institute this summer.
"It's been a great incentive for my computer science students to know that someone will actually be looking at this project," said Sprenkle.
With the new interface, a researcher can search by location or keywords to look at the graffiti inside a particular building and can then see the text and images alongside each other. "It's a different type of search," explained Han Gil (Paul) Jang, a sophomore computer science and math double major from Oro Valley, Ariz., and one of four students who worked on the project. "I learned what we can actually do in terms of developing web applications, bringing in other people's work and incorporating it into our project."
Jin (Ginny) Huang also worked on the project and is a junior computer science and math double major from China. "What I really like about this class is that it provides a platform for us to use our programs and communicate with a lot of other users. We'll put it on the internet and everybody can use it, even the non-technical people, which feels very nice" she said.
The other students who worked on the project are Onyebuchi (Onye) Ekenta, a sophomore mathematics and computer science double major from Lehigh Acres, Fla., and Anton Reed, a junior computer science and economics double major from East McKeesport, Pa.
The classics students who contributed to the project are Jacob Bowe '15, Emily Crawford '15, Caroline Hutchinson '16, and Amy Nizolek, Vergil Parson, Caroline Sutherland, Angela Tuminno, and Joshua Zacks (all W&L Class of 2013).