Across the Pond

Posted on 08 December 2015

Talk: Marion Lamé (CNRS, France & University of Pisa), Federico Ponchio (ISTI CNR, Pisa), Ivan Radman (Archeological Museum of Zagreb) and Bruce Robertson (Mount Allison University), “Across the Pond: an Experiment in Ancient History Teaching and Digital Epigraphical Research”.


Date: Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Time: starting at 17:00 c.t. (i.e. 17:15)

Venue: TOPOI Building Dahlem, Hittorfstraße 18 D-14195 Berlin (map)


This paper presents a hybrid learning experience shared between three countries, Italy, Croatia, and Canada. In this project, an editing environment (using WebGL, PHP, HTML5, SVG, JPEG) allowed Latin-less undergraduate students to provide data about a large and challenging epigraphical corpus.

The Archaeological Museum of Zagreb (AMZ) stores over 1,200 Roman commercial lead tags (1st-3rd century AD), discovered in the stream bed of the Kupa River (Pannonian Colapis) of the modern town of Sisak (Roman Siscia). These small rectangular tablets are inscribed with handwriting whose transcription constitutes a challenging task. Written symbols show from two to even thirteen different allographs. One well-known difficulty, for example is the fact that “II” (two vertical strokes) can represent the Roman number for “2”, the Latin letter “E”, or even the trace of something else. One or more holes are bored for attaching the tag (e.g. during dyeing) with a small rope or a metal wire to the merchandise (e.g. bags or woolen fabric).

Reading Roman graffiti is challenging. It demands that the research acquire some basics in Latin and in palaeography and has access to a collection of tags under specific illumination, since deciphering them in traditional photos is almost impossible. Researchers usually inspect them de visu, often with a microscope. Practicing sustained deciphering on more than one hundred tags is a minimum for a good training, and this can take weeks of access.

Well known image processing and visualisation technologies (RTI - Reflectance Transforming Imaging, see PALMA, 2010) offers, as an alternative to on-site work, a reliable Digital Autoptic Process (DAP) for studying lead tags. RTI representations of the lead tags were produced in January 2014 for researchers and students who are trying to interpret inscriptions on lead tags. RTI technologies allow the viewer to mimic the pitch and yaw motion that readers naturally make in such situations, whether they be a Roman dyer of the 2nd century AD or an epigrapher of the 21st. In June 2014, Tarte’s Digital Classicist Seminar clearly explained the digital and cognitive co-dependent dynamic involved in deciphering with trained experts already familiar with those texts.

We trained inexpert beginners, at the stage of getting familiar with inscriptions, although with no access at all to the archaeological material. Following TERRAS (2006), taking the Roman lead tags from Siscia as a case study, and using RTI Webviewer, Canadian students, supervised by their local Classics professor, and digital humanists and epigraphers situated in Europe, performed different research tasks, exclusively online. The training was based on the DIGICRAFT teaching model of the Laboratorio di Cultura Digitale of the University of Pisa. Such teaching model encourages students to share skills and expertise. This training was in three steps (“Readings”, “Writings”, “Test & Taste a DAP”), allowing students to work on the three systems of a dispositive analysis of the inscription: writing system, textual system, and context system (Lamé, 2015).

The Canadian students reacted enthusiastically, finding numbers, symbols, a few Latin words, and confirming previous readings. The task of digitally drawing and transcribing them, using the tool Mark Out specifically designed for the occasion, was rewarding. Collecting the various representations of the letters is useful in a scholarly context since it allows scholars to develop a chronology and distinguish the hands involve. Through this, we planned quantitative methods on some specific shapes of the archaic letter “A” for dating.

RTI seemed a helpful image processing and visualisation tool for training beginners while getting the help they might need online (collaboration between learners among countries, distributed e-learning processes). The students’ work modelled how Ph.D. students might, with even greater impact, be prepared remotely for a hands-on internship in museums. These digital tools furthermore clearly promoted Classics. One student summed up the experience for all by saying, “this is what I imaged university would be like.”


FUSI, D. (2007). Informatica per le scienze umane. Vol. 1: Elementi. Vol. 2: Modelli. Nuova Cultura.

LAMÉ, M. (2015). “Primary Sources of Information, Digitization Processes and Dispositive Analysis”, in F. Tomasi – R. Rosselli Del Turco, – A. M. Tammaro (edd.) Proceedings of the Third AIUCD Annual Conference on Humanities and their Methods in the Digital Ecosystem. ACM, article 18.

PALMA, G. (et al.) (2010). “Dynamic shading enhancement for reflectance transformation imaging”. Journal on Computing and Cultural Heritage 3, 2.

TABOR, S. W (Spring 2007). “Narrowing the Distance: Implementing a Hybrid Learning Model”. Quarterly Review of Distance Education (IAP) 8 (1): 48–49.

TERRAS, M. 2006. Image to Interpretation: Intelligent Systems to Aid Historians in the Reading of the Vindolanda Texts. Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents. Oxford University Press.

VAUGHAN, N. D. (2010). “Blended Learning”. In Cleveland Innes, MF; Garrison, DR. An Introduction to Distance Education: Understanding Teaching and Learning in a New Era. Taylor & Francis. p. 165.


Tesserarum Sisciae Sylloge project & Archaeological Museum Zagreb

Laboratorio di Cultura Digitale, Università di Pisa

Visual Computing Laboratory, ISTI-CNR

Istituto di Linguistica Computazionale, CNR.

Hana Ivezic, Ana Franjic, Miljenka Galic, archaeological drawers.



Or download the video from here (540 MB).


Or download the video from here (280 MB).