Image, Text, Interpretation: e-Science, Technology and Documents

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Classics Faculty


Decipherment and interpretation of manuscripts and documents is a central and fundamental component of research in all periods of literature and history and in related specialised disciplines such as linguistics, epigraphy, palaeography and archaeology. Such texts are, however, often very difficult to read, not least because of physical damaged which tends to be more severe the older the document is. Advanced imaging and computational technology can significantly aid the process of deciphering, reading and interpreting documents. In order to develop an effective IT-based technology in an e-science framework, it is also crucially necessary to analyse and understand the visual and cognitive processes which are involved in deciphering damaged or deteriorated texts. This is seldom made explicit to the non-expert reader of the texts and its scholarly interpretation. There are as yet no computational facilities for scholars working on propagating readings of texts to share data, discuss procedures, make explicit their reasoning, and make use of relevant advances in technological methods. This research seeks to develop a system which will aid the scholarly humanities community in reading manuscripts and documents from a wide range of literatures and cultures / emphatically not 'automating' reading, but providing a tool for the expert reader or scholar to harness and document the reasoning process; share, distribute, and manipulate data; and utilise advanced computational techniques and processing power afforded by e-Science technologies.

Building on successful earlier research on image-processing and decipherment in dealing with the unique Roman ink and stylus tablets from Vindolanda, the proposed new research will develop, in a web-based environment, training methods and a suite of tools, in effect a palaeographer's workbench, to aid in the reading of degraded documents from a wide range of periods and subject-areas. After being built and tested on Greek and Roman written and incised material, which is well-known and readily available to the research team, the techniques and methods will be tested and further development carried out for other types of documents and manuscripts in other languages and periods, with adequate documentation, to encourage wider use. Moreover, the potential applications of such image processing algorithms are not limited to reading manuscripts and documents. Understanding issues such as local energy and phase in image processing will result in knowledge transfer to domains such as medical imaging, where application of these technologies is fundamental.

The development of the system demands novel computational techniques, both in image processing, and in computational reasoning architectures. The approach taken here depends crucially on recognising the indispensability of the accumulated knowledge and judgment of the experts and aims to assist them, using a combination of image processing and data mining of (e.g.) letter forms, letter frequency, and word lists, techniques which have been demonstrated as a proof of concept in our earlier research. Proposals for the investigation into the mobilization of knowledge for the reasoning and interpretation of image data, or across semantic levels, are few. Yet there is a requirement for the investigation and development of such architectures to aid in tasks where uncertainty and probability need to be made explicit when reasoning about information (such as in medical imaging). Novel techniques in engineering science have been developed to allow data to be compared and contrasted across different semantic boundaries; these have been demonstrated as a proof of concept in propagating readings of the Vindolanda writing-tablets. Further development of these techniques and technologies will refine the approach, increase its effectiveness, and add to our understanding of role uncertainty, constraints reasoning, and analysis in image data.


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Bodard, Gabriel; Mahony, Simon (2010) Digital Research in the Study of Classical Antiquity

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Bowman A (2010) Emptio Bovis Frisica : the 'Frisian Ox Sale' Reconsidered in Journal of Roman Studies

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Dutton, William H.; Jeffreys, Paul W.; Goldin, Ian (2010) World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities

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Roued-Cunliffe H (2010) Towards a decision support system for reading ancient documents in Literary and Linguistic Computing

Description Development of much improved image capture and enhancement techniques for inscribed writing tablets led to a dramatic new reading and re-interpretation of an important text from the Netherlands first discovered in 1917. Improvement of phase congruency and feature extraction. This was part of process of experimenting with texts written on various material such as wood and lead. We were able to refine the image capture process and identify ways in which variable lighting could be applied and simulated on screen to provide a form of virtual illumination at different azimuths. A further project followed which developed a successful system of reflectance transformation imaging that was applied to Roman wooden writing tablets and to cuneiform texts on clay. These research results were described and analysed in several papers in learned journals and on-line by the postdoctoral RA on the project, Dr Segolene Tarte. Full bibliographical details will be supplied under Outcomes.

The doctoral student, Henriette Roued-Cunliffe, was able to construction of an improved on-line website of Vindolanda writing-tablets using textual encoding. This led to a supplementary on-line database of the Vindolanda Tablets with improved lemmatisation and search capability.
Exploitation Route Searchable website accessible to general public with an interest in Roman writing-tablets. Re-edition of stilus tablet from Netherlands (Frisia) was feartured on Dutch national evening news.

Some of this material was used in a Digital Humanities display at the Palace of Westminster in February 2013, to demonstrate the potential of e-Research to Members of both Houses of Parliament.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Electronics,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description To improve the technology of imaging damaged documents and to improve understanding of the cognitive factors involved in transcribing and interpreting damaged incomplete or damaged texts. To understand the potential and the limitations of ITC support for the 'expert reader'. To improve online presentation of corpora of textual material.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Creative Economy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Education,Electronics,Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Cultural,Societal

Description British Academy - Leverhulme Trust Small Research Grants
Amount £10,000 (GBP)
Organisation The British Academy 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2013 
End 03/2015
Description E-science and ancient documents
Amount £342,000 (GBP)
Funding ID AH/E00654X/1 
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2008 
End 12/2012
Description Private grant (US-based charity)
Amount $40,000 (USD)
Organisation University of Oxford 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2013 
End 09/2014
Description A virtual research environment for the study of documents and manuscripts 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A seminar in the Digital Classicist series, presenting the findings of the project

Requests for help from documentary specialists in other disciplines
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2009
Description Exhibition presentation (Palace of Westminster) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Exhibition provoked questions about digital humanities and on-line presentation.

Some contact from individuals who saw the presentation.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013
Description Seminars on Visual Perception and Cognition 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact A working paper exploring the visual perception and cognition processes in play when producing a transcription and interpretation of textual documents

Paper session:

From vision to interpretation. Invitations in UK and Europe to present innovative methods and approaches
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2011,2012,2013