Digitally Curating Knowledge Creation: Understanding and Recording the Process of Interpreting Cultural and Historical Artefacts

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford e-Research Centre


Interpretation and re-interpretation of textual artefacts such as Roman wooden tablets (e.g. the Vindolanda tablets) and cuneiform clay tablets are a core activity for documentary scholars and historians. It is the act of interpretation of these documentary artefacts that gives them a meaning both as a text and as an object, one that can then be shared amongst academics and with the wider public, shedding light on a past history and culture. Interpretation is thus an act of knowledge creation. Creating this knowledge is a complex and often arduous task that involves elaborate rationales that are strongly influenced by the context in which they are developed. For example, interpreting a certain glyph on a roman incised tablet thought to be dating from 29 AD as an 'A' is strongly influenced by the current palaeographical knowledge of letter shapes from that period; or reading a word on a tablet as 'ox' is influenced by the fact that the tablet was found in a region where cows were and still are renowned for their size, by the fact that that region is known to have rebelled against a taxation system in ox hides around the date the tablet is thought to have been written, thus leading one scholar to interpret the tablet as a record of a sale of an ox; a century later, the tablet is reinterpreted as a debt acknowledgment, where no mention of an ox is found. The variables that influenced these divergent readings of the same tablet are contextual; they comprise perception, expectations, intentions or have to do with a cultural perspective, all of which are mostly implicit. We aim in this project to facilitate the identification and exposition of such variables to facilitate interpretations and potential revisions.
At times when museums and libraries are concentrating on digitizing and curating artefacts, it is crucial to also address the question of digitally recording the knowledge associated with the data. By digitally recording not only the knowledge but also the knowledge creation process, we will allow, beyond data curation, curation of the knowledge that confers a meaning on an artefacts. Such digitization also responds to a need to trace the provenance of knowledge. To that effect, and building on previous work that analyzed how interpretations of ancient documents unravel, I will build a software component dedicated to the support and recording of the development of interpretations, and in particular we aim to make explicit implicit variables such as cultural perspective and intention, thereby facilitating processes such as revision of an interpretation and development of alternate interpretations. In order to enable digital curation of knowledge creation, we will deploy a number of methodologies and techniques spanning: (1) ICT technology and Computer Science to develop a web-based software component that will work with other software such as artefact digitization software, (2) Argumentation Theory and Epistemology, to model the interpretation thought process, (3) Cognitive Sciences, Sociology and Information Studies to study the expert practice of interpretation of documentary artefacts, and naturally (4) documentary scholarship in Classics and Oriental Studies, to design the software component according to the scholarly practice.
The vastly inter- and multi-disciplinary reach of this project, beyond the software component that will directly result of it, will also serve: (1) to engage disciplines that are more traditionally scientific with the type of questions and challenges that Humanities scholarship faces, and (2) to establish a direct feedback loop between the design and use of ICT technology in a Humanities discipline and the impact of these technologies on the scholarly practice.

Planned Impact

The impact of building a software component that allows researchers to record an interpretation process digitally, including implicit variables that affect it (e.g. intention and cultural perspective), is multifarious:
[Museums] Museum curators could use this software component as a tool to support the conception of themed exhibition focusing on alternative perspectives. By drawing attention of museum visitors to the possibilities of cross-perspectival perception, the public can then be enlightened on the prevalent role that context plays on the understanding of artefacts. The implicit variables made explicit by the software could be expressed by the way the artefact is presented in the museum, so that the impact of those variables on meaning could be expressed by a 'rotating' contextual environment, where each exhibition environment yields a different (and not necessarily contradictory!) explanation.
[Society] As a result, our ability to identify how societies perceive themselves reflexively through their perception of past and unfamiliar societal contexts would be heightened by the tool and by the ways it could be used in a museum context.
[Education] This tool could also be used as teaching material, assisting in exposing the impact of the cross-perspectival and cross-cultural aspects of interpretation to students and thus demonstrate clearly the all-important influence of context.
[Research] This project will enable us to establish a feedback loop between interpretation in the Humanities, and Science and Technologies to mutually nurture and inform each other's development, thereby enhancing and promoting the development and use of appropriate digital tools in the Humanities community, giving rise to the possibility of asking new research questions which could not have been tackled before.
[Research & Policy] This project is also an opportunity to start shaping an emerging domain within the Digital Humanities that could be called Arts and Humanities Technologies Studies. By analogy with Science and Technology Studies, which is defined as 'an interdisciplinary field that is creating an integrative understanding of the origins, dynamics, and consequences of science and technology' (Hackett et al, 2008), Arts and Humanities Technologies Studies would be defined as an interdisciplinary field that is creating an integrative understanding of the origins, dynamics, and consequences of Arts and Humanities Technologies. This domain would then have the potential to inform policy making as to the directions of research in the Arts and Humanities.
[Culture & Society] Through this project, we also will provide further evidence to refute C.P. Snow's Two Cultures hypothesis by proving that sciences and humanities not only can work together, but that actually each single subject has developed its own culture and its own ways to apprehend knowledge and knowledge creation. Traditional Classical scholarship, where all subjects overlap and nurture each other, yields not only results but progress in the way knowledge grows, by encouraging serendipity, creativity and imagination through the encounter of various cultures. The end of the Two Cultures era would then support and promote the diversity that makes societies grow morally, culturally, politically, and scientifically.
[Heritage] Finally, this project is a definite step towards digital curation of knowledge, not just of data, and therefore it prepares a legacy for future generations in the form of a digital testimony of how we interpret artefacts and what we regard as important today in the rationale that unravels an interpretation. Preserving and conserving artefacts is essential, documenting and conserving the knowledge we appended to them and the process that created the knowledge are a natural complement to the artefact, and are an integral part of the legacy we pass on to


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Description There are two main findings resulting from this 9-months grant:
(1) The cognitive aspects of reading ancient documents are often implicit, and rely more than previously acknowledged on (often implicit) perceptual skills - in particular: visual, aural, kinaesthetic - as a complement to knowledge of e.g. history and linguistics.
(2) The methodological gap between ethnographical investigations and cognitive investigations makes it difficult to rigorously compare and possibly connect their results; there is a need to develop methods to link findings from those disciplines.
Exploitation Route Colleagues have reported making extensive use of articles resulting from the work undertaken in this project in teaching contexts, highlighting the importance of cross-perspectival views to students and promoting the adoption of cognitively-informed digital tools (as research complements to humans skills, as enablers, not as replacement).
The findings from this project have also informed the PI's teaching at the Digital Humanities Summer School in Oxford (yearly since 2013) and guest-lecturing on themes of (cognitively-informed) image processing for the Humanities and on interdisciplinarity at the Centre for Information Modelling, Austrian Centre for Digital Humanities, University of Graz (May 2015).
Attendance and subsequent co-organization of workshops/retreats around the theme of Digital Palaeography (Dagstuhl 2012 & 2014) also showed that raising awareness of the perceptual and cognitive engagement of scholars is crucial to making digital endeavours, and multi-disciplinarity successful.
Sectors Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

Description Small Award Scheme
Amount £7,449 (GBP)
Funding ID 151/134 
Organisation University of Oxford 
Department John Fell Fund
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2016 
End 11/2016