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Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) comes back to life

One of King’s oldest digital prosopographical project has recently returned to life, and is now freely available online at

The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) began as a project back in the late 1980s to produce a prosopography of individuals who appear in sources from the early Byzantine Empire (641-867 AD).

The principal compiler and editor for PBE was John Robert Martindale with Dr Dion Smythe as Research Associate and Dr Mary Whitby as Research Assistant to the project. PBE was supported by the British Academy from the beginning (and, indeed, the Academy has generously continued to support work in this area up to the present day), with a scholarly committee formed of prominent scholars including Professor Robert Browning (chair of the project until his death in 1997), Professor Averil Cameron (chair), Professor A.A.M. Bryer, Dr Larry Conrad, Professor Donald Nicol, Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Professor Charlotte Roueché, Professor John Haldon, Professor Judith Herrin (deputy chair), Dr James Howard-Johnston, Professor Paul Magdalino, Mr John Robert Martindale, Dr Rosemary Morris, Professor Margaret Mullett, Mr Harold Short, Dr Dion Smythe and Dr Mary Whitby. An agreement of collaboration was signed in 1993 between the British Academy (for PBE) and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (for PmbZ).

After the PBE work was done funding was acquired (initially from the precursor to the current AHRC, the AHRB) to begin prosopographical work on a third period of the Byzantine Empire – a project that came to be called the Prosopography for the Byzantine World (1025-1150); available at

PBE has an interesting story to tell to Digital Humanists, since, unusually for its day, the project was conceived of from its very beginning as a digital project to be published in some kind of electronic form. It was taken up by what was then King’s College London Computer Centre’s Research Unit in Humanities Computing (which eventually became what is now the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s). Thus, staff within the RUHC were actively involved in the conception and development of PBE as a digital product: initially Gordon Gallacher, Mark Stewart, and (when he joined the department in 1997) John Bradley. Throughout, the work was planned and coordinated by Harold Short (who was technical director). Indeed, in the mid and late 1990s there emerged a then highly original vision for prosopography when Gallacher, Stewart and Smythe developed a model to represent prosopography as a structured data project based around a relational database for storage.

In the 1990s it was not at all obvious in what form a digital publication that would be accessible to Byzantine scholars should be published, especially since the data itself was held on a centralised relational database held at King’s. Furthermore, at the time many Byzantine scholars did not have ready access to the internet and were not yet familiar with the World Wide Web. Thus, the publication was originally conceived of in terms of a Digital CD disk that would hold the materials, and could be purchased and then used by scholars on their own personal computers. Even when, in the later 1990s, the CD medium still seemed the way to go, it was still not clear what software would be used to make a PBE CD usable on any computer Byzantinists would be likely to have. After some early prototyping by John Bradley, it became evident that the database data could be expressed in terms of a set of HTML web pages, and after approval of the PBE committee, he developed the procedures that extracted the data and generated the materials that were put onto the CD as a set of highly interlinked HTML pages (approx 13,000 pages). The original disk even included a version of the early web browser NetScape that could be installed from the disk itself if the CD user did not already have a web browser on their computer.

Web technology was not as mature in the late 1990s as it is today. First, the PBE materials contained some amount of ancient Greek text, and although today Unicode support on pretty well any contemporary computer provides for the display of Greek as a matter of course, in the 1990s there was yet no adequate support to display Greek text on most computers. Thus, a Greek font was located (SPIONIC was used), and technical work was carried out to translate the Greek representation as it was in the database (extended Greek Beta-Code) into a representation that would work with this font. The font itself was also provided on the CD. Next, some degree of interactivity was thought desirable for this material. Thus, a small set of Javascript programs were hand-crafted and weaved into the CD materials to support facet-like filtering of data. In the late 1990s JavaScript was a much more limited creature than it is today (there was then no mechanism to get at the actual HTML of web pages, for example), and this use of Javascript to support enriched browser-based user interaction on humanities data was a very new and innovative development at the time. Finally, page layout technologies such as CSS were only in the earliest phases of development, so richer layout and navigation was created by the use of HTML frame technology.

Even by the time the PBE CD was published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in 2001, it was becoming evident that an online version of PBE, served over the WWW, was becoming an appropriate way to make PBE available.  However, as it turned out, publishing PBE on the WWW had to wait many years. At last, due to the kind permission of Ashgate Publishing and a bit of work recently by John Bradley and Ginestra Ferraro (DDH), the full set of materials that were originally available via the CD have been at last been made available online for free at After being presented with a few modern-looking front pages, the user quickly finds him/herself being presented with web pages as they were designed in 1998-2001. However, not all of the technical design is exactly as it was on the CD, and a few features behind the scenes have been updated to reflect more modern browser standards. The special Greek font is no longer needed because the Greek text has been translated into Unicode for the online PBE version, and the Javascript interactive component has been updated to take advantage of more recent, and more satisfactory, components and practices.

One could argue that the PBE project represented an important stage of development for the Digital Humanities, and certainly for DH at King’s.

  • It was the first at King’s of the kind of highly collaborative academic projects that blended academic and technical innovation, and that aimed to explore the potential of digital publication. This approach, proposed and developed originally by Harold Short, proved to be highly successful, and provided the model for more than 40 subsequent highly successful multi-year collaborative projects that have operated at DDH according to similar principles. The Clergy of the Church of England database, the Fine Rolls of Henry III, the People of Medieval Scotland, the Art of Making in Antiquity, and many others are the fruit of this approach.
  • PBE was the first project where the factoid approach to structured prosopography was developed and then used. The factoid approach, originally developed by Gordon Gallacher and Dion Smythe, has undergone further development from its form in PBE, but has been used very successfully in a good number of structured prosopography projects including the Prosopography of the Byzantine World, the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, the Breaking of Britain project, the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project, and has been taken up by other prosopographical projects worldwide.
  • The PBE CD represents a very early attempt to think about how to publish highly structured data over the WWW in a form that was effective for humanist use. Subsequent work on how this should be done can be traced over many years in the approaches used by several other long standing online research projects at DDH such as the Stellenbibliographie zum “Parzival” Wolframs von Eschenbach, Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Digitisation Project, British Printed Images to 1700 and Early Modern London Theatres.
  • Finally, PBE represents a very early attempt to use Javascript in a Digital Humanities project to enhance client/browser side interactivity for its users. Javascript has developed a very long way from what it was like in the late 1990s, and it is now capable of supporting very rich and complex user interaction. However, even under the limitations of what Javascript could do in the 1990s, PBE’s use of it revealed some of what Javascript’s potential was as a tool to provide enriched interaction in humanities scholarly resources.

PBE was originally published on CD with the conscious aim by its committee of keeping its cost as low as possible so that it would be affordable to as many researchers as possible. Since then, the WWW has made it possible to publish freely available complex resources to any scholar with access to the internet, and this development is clearly still in the process of transforming scholarship. We are very grateful to Ashgate publishers for agreeing to permit this material that was originally published by them on the CD to be now made freely available to an international scholarly community.

Digital Classicist London seminar 2015

Summer 2015 programme

Digital Classicist London & Institute of Classical Studies seminars

Meetings are on Fridays at 16:30 in room G21A*, Senate House, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU

(*except June 14 in Room 348; June 26 and July 3, not in ICS—see below)


Seminars will be followed by refreshments

Follow or discuss the seminars on Twitter at #DigiClass.

Jun 5 Jen Hicks (UCL) From lost archives to digital databases (abstract)
Jun 12 Leif Isaksen, Pau de Soto (Southampton), Elton Barker (Open University) and Rainer Simon (Vienna) Pelagios and Recogito: an annotation platform for joining a linked data world (abstract) Rm 348
Jun 19 Emma Payne (UCL) Digital comparison of 19th century plaster casts and original classical sculptures (abstract)
Jun 26 Various speakers (names and titles tba) (in UCL)
Jul 3 Francesca Giovannetti, Asmita Jain, Ethan Jean-Marie, Paul Kasay, Emma King, Theologis Strikos, Argula Rublack and Kaijie Ying (King’s College London) The Pedagogical Value of Postgraduate Involvement in Digital Humanities Departmental Projects (abstract tha) (in KCL)
Jul 10 Monica Berti, Gregory R. Crane (Leipzig), Kenny Morrell (Center for Hellenic Studies) Sunoikisis DC – An International Consortium of Digital Classics Programs (abstract)
Jul 17 Hugh Cayless (Duke) Integrating Digital Epigraphies (IDEs) (abstract)
Jul 24 Saskia Peels (Liège) A Collection of Greek Ritual Norms Project (CGRN) (abstract)
Jul 31 Federico Aurora (Oslo) DAMOS – Database of Mycenaean at Oslo (abstract)
Aug 7 Usama Gad (Heidelberg) Graecum-Arabicum-Latinum Encoded Corpus (GALEN©) (abstract)
Aug 14 Sarah Hendriks (Oxford) Digital technologies and the Herculaneum Papyri (abstract)

(Organised by Gabriel Bodard, Hugh Bowden, Stuart Dunn, Simon Mahony and Charlotte Tupman.)

MA in Digital Humanities at King’s College London

  • The MA in Digital Humanities is one of the leading programmes of its kind, housed in one of the field’s largest and most prestigious departments. A 180-credit postgraduate programme leading to a Master of Arts qualification, it combines theory and practice informed by a wide array of humanities subjects, focusing on their nexus with digital scholarship and research, and the new questions that arise as a result.
  • All the Department’s teaching is research-led. In 2014, King’s College London was ranked 16th in the world in the QS World University Rankings of the top 800 global Higher Education institutions. The Department of Digital Humanities in a joint submission with the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries performed very strongly in the 2014 Research Exercise Framework (REF), ranking 1st in the country according to the research ‘power’ metric under the ’36 – Communication, Cultural and Media Studies, Library and Information Management’ unit of assessment. As a student, you will be part of a dynamic and world-leading research department.
  • DDH enjoys close links and collaborations with other faculties and departments in humanities domains such as English, History and Classics, Culture, Media and Creative Industries, and also with departments such as Informatics. DDH works closely with the King’s Cultural Institute to connect and partner with cultural institutions in London and elsewhere.
  • The Department is located in the heart of London’s historic West End, amid the UK’s leading galleries, museums and theatres. The National Gallery and National Portrait Gallery are within easy walking distance, as is the British Museum (all of which offer free general admission), the Petrie Museum, and the British Library, which students in the Department may apply to join as Readers free of charge.
  • Students may study for one year full-time or two years part-time. The degree is structured as an intensive process of preparation for further professional development, or for further postgraduate study. A compulsory core module provides a solid basis for understanding the field’s theory and practice: Introduction to Digital Humanities provides an overview of the intellectual and practical issues of applying digital methods to humanities material. Students choose four optional modules from a varied selection, spanning areas including Digital Arts and Culture, Cultural Heritage, Visualization and Web Technologies. Modules include Digital Publishing; Open Source, Open Access, Open Culture; Web Technologies; Communication and Consumption of Cultural Heritage; Maps, Apps and the GeoWeb: Introduction to the Spatial Humanities. No previous experience of coding or qualifications in computer science are necessary.​
  • Students will also undertake independent research via the dissertation with the supervision of leading practitioners from the Department.
  • King’s offers a range of funding opportunities, including Postgraduate Scholarships for UK/EU students and President’s Scholarships for Overseas students.

Digital Humanities Seminar

We invite all who are interested to join us for the Autumn Digital Humanities seminar at King’s College London. The seminars are on Tuesday afternoons at 18:00, and held in the Anatomy Museum (ATM) on the 6th floor of the King’s Building on the Strand campus (with exceptions clearly marked below).


Peter Stokes, Stewart Brookes, Giancarlo Buomprisco (KCL), Elaine
Treharne (Stanford), Donald Scragg (Manchester)
Digital Resource and Database for Palaeography, Manuscript Studies and Diplomatic (DigiPal) launch event (Room K2.29)

Weds 22-Oct-2014 *17:30 start*
Helma Dik (University of Chicago)
Philologia ex machina: Are we getting any closer? (Room K0.20)
*Note: this event is on a Wednesday at 17:30, and is a joint seminar with the Classics department*

Timo Honkela (National Library of Finland, Helsinki)
Text Mining for Digital Humanities (ATM)

Tobias Blanke (KCL) et alii.
Book launch: Digital Asset Ecosystems: Rethinking crowds and clouds (ATM)

Gabriel Bodard (KCL), Daniel Pett (British Museum), Humphrey Southall (Portsmouth), Charlotte Tupman (KCL)
Round table: Linking ancient people, places, objects and texts (ATM)

DigiPal Project Launch and Party

Date: Tuesday 7th October 2014
Time: 5.45pm until the wine runs out
Venue: Council Room, King’s College London, Strand WC2R 2LS
Co-sponsor: Centre for Late Antique & Medieval studies, KCL
Register your place at 

After four years, the DigiPal project is finally coming to an end. To celebrate this, we are having a launch party at the Strand Campus of King’s on Tuesday, 7 October. The programme is as follows:

  • Welcome: Stewart Brookes and Peter Stokes
  • Giancarlo Buomprisco: “Shedding Some Light(box) on Medieval Manuscripts”
  • Elaine Treharne (via Skype)
  • Donald Scragg: “Beyond DigiPal”
  • Q & A with the DigiPal team

If you’re in the area then do register and come along for the talks and a free drink (or two) in celebration. Registration is free, but is required to manage numbers and ensure that we have enough drink and nibbles to go around

If you’re not familiar with DigiPal already, we have been been developing new methods for the analysis of medieval handwriting. Regular readers of this blog will have already seen our poster for DH 2014,  but do visit the site if you haven’t yet seen it. There’s much more detail there about the project, including one post of the DigiPal project blog which summarises the website and its functionality. Quoting from that, you can:

 Do have a look at the site and let us know what you think. And – just as importantly – do come and have a drink on us on Tuesday!

DH2014: DigiPal Poster

DH2014 Poster

The DigiPal project team presented this poster at DH2014 (for a full-size version see the DigiPal website). I’m happy to say that it attracted a lot of positive interest, with discussions including its current and (shortly) planned use on Latin, Hebrew and Greek alphabets, as well as decoration, in manuscripts, inscriptions and coins; potential applications to Indic scripts (possible but challenging) and Cuneiform (certainly possible); and even a member of the Unicode consortium expressing interest in our model for handwriting. There was also a lot of interest from people working in Computer Vision, especially now that our RESTful API allows anyone to harvest images of letters, complete with their annotations, for use as training material for machine learning. I look forward to seeing these uses after the project ends in six weeks or so, and my personal thanks goes to the whole DigiPal team for all the outstanding work they have done to make it possible.

Dataset refining and simplified queries

A current project to better understand the evolution of the Celtic language is making use of interactive maps that bring together many different data sets for comparison.

The project is making use of and refining existing data that often exists in a flat tabular form and creating a more scalable relational database that can be used to perform more complex queries than was previously possible.

For instance, one data set contains a list of burial sites with details including the nature of the burial, the type of pottery and other artifacts found in association with the individuals at the site and, where possible, the gender and approximate age of each individual.

When these data were originally collected a spread sheet was used to classify each site but often the entries followed a free text format and it was perhaps not considered that this form of recording would be hard to use programmatically in the future. For instance, a typical summary description of the remains found at a site recorded in a spread sheet cell might be:

“adult male burial asso with adult female and baby”.

Whilst this is descriptive and can be easily understood by a human, it is hard to make use of in a structured query. For this reason much effort has been expended to normalise the spread sheet data into a flexible relational database form. In the previous example, whilst we a still retain one site record, we link this site to three separate buried individuals. Each individual in turn has its own strictly controlled categorisations:

Individual1, Adult Male

Individual2, Adult Female

Individual3, Neonate.

Each of these individuals may have descriptions of the manner in which they were interred, for example orientation of the long axis of the body, position of the head or the side of the body it is lying on. Additionally, the individual grave goods are associated with the correct individual to aid interpretation. Wherever possible, all such free text fields have been converted into discrete lists of valid options.

This structure allows us to use queries like ‘Return all burial sites where there are more than five individuals, all male, regardless of age, found with a Cairn, but not a Pit, where at least one individual is oriented NW-SE’.

This is an admittedly complex example and one that is possibly unlikely to yield results, but it demonstrates the sort of complexity available.

If this sort of query were expressed in SQL, it would be verbose and probably unintelligible to a non-technically minded researcher.

To help researchers assemble similar queries, the data sets will be carefully pre indexed to expose the most useful facets of the data. Each record can exhibit none or many of the data facets indexed. These options are presented in simple checkbox lists to either include or exclude particular facets and to continually narrow the results.

This screen grab from a functional prototype shows a user requesting burials from the database that are of type “Cist”, have been “Disturbed” and DO NOT include individuals aligned “East to West”.


Although these results could then be displayed to the user in a tabular form, they are presumably interested in the geographic distribution of the results. The results are mapped so it can be seen where these sorts of similar burials are.

A common problem when the result set is large, or is particularly concentrated in a small area, is that map markers tend to overlay each other and the relative density of clusters cannot be easily seen or individual markers easily identified. To deal with this potential issue, the mapped results are clustered and styled so that at a glance, the researcher can see where her results are concentrated. Intensity of colour reflects an increasing count in these two example screen grabs (the second being the same result set as the first at a higher zoom level). A useful side effect of this approach is that the web browser doesn’t have to cope with rendering too many markers which can impact performance.

map1       map2

Festschrift to honour Harold Short published

A book has just been published that celebrates the recent retirement of Professor Harold Short from King’s Department of Digital Humanities (DDH).  Published by Ashgate publishers, and entitled “Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities“, it is a festschrift honouring Harold Short and his work.  As is characteristic of a festschrift, it contains chapters by many colleagues of Harold’s from around the world and reflects upon some of the remarkable aspects of collaborative research that have been enabled and revealed by the Digital Humanities. Continue reading Festschrift to honour Harold Short published

Response to ‘Making the Digital Human’

This post has been prompted by a thoughtful, interesting, and provocative post by Andrew Prescott (hereafter AP) on his blog Digital Riffs.

While I agree with AP’s wish to see DH having greater freedom to set its own agenda, I think he paints a distorted/exaggerated picture of the co-optation that he believes currently prevents it from doing so. For example, after giving the period focus breakdown of projects at King’s College Department of Digital Humanities, he writes “While Oxford seems a little more willing to countenance modernity than King’s College”. Many readers will reasonably see in this the assertion: King’s College DDH is largely unwilling to countenance modernity. But that is only one of several possible explanations for the way the period focus figures divide. Continue reading Response to ‘Making the Digital Human’

Gerhard Brey, 25 August 1954 – 8 February 2012

Gerhard Andreas Brey, our friend and until recently colleague here at DDH, died peacefully on the night of 8 February 2012 after a short battle with cancer. Gerhard was a Senior Research Fellow in the Department, having worked with us since 2004, and was a valued colleague and collaborator until September 2011 when he became a casualty of recent redundancies.

There was a private funeral for family and friends in February; we plan to hold an academic celebration of Gerhard’s life later in the year. In the meantime there is a page for donations to Cancer Research UK in memory of Gerhard at

Gerhard was born in Laufen, Bavaria, into a home shared with his close extended family. Continue reading Gerhard Brey, 25 August 1954 – 8 February 2012