Pleiades and Pelagios: Organizing Ancient Geography on the Web

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Most modern databases focusing on antiquity use geographic references to contextualize the information they contain. Creators of such resources therefore try to standardize the names of ancient cities and regions so that users can compare and contrast information from multiple sources. This is a complicated task because—both in antiquity and now—a single name may apply to more than one location and a single location may have many names over time.

Scholars generally follow the practice introduced by ancient authors, associating a place name with its larger regional context to ensure clarity. For instance, one might write that the famous Athenian general Themistocles died and was buried at “Magnesia on the Maeander,” thereby specifying which of several cities named “Magnesia” is meant (in this case, the one located in the western part of modern Turkey on the bank of the Maeander River). But even these phrases may be hard to interpret because of language differences, word order, and other factors, especially when trying to program a computer to automatically connect relevant information.

Recently developed Internet standards have made it possible to improve on this approach by establishing stable “identifiers” for each place of interest. These identifiers are unique codes assigned to ancient places so that computer programs can query, sort, group, and connect information geographically. Their use also promotes more consistent references in the literature, helping to bridge the gap between narrative publications and databases. For Greek, Roman, and Ancient Near Eastern places, the Pleiades gazetteer assigns these identifiers. Pleiades is a joint project of ISAW and the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Pleiades Editorial Board establishes an identifier for each ancient place that is catalogued by its volunteer contributors, who include scholars, students, and enthusiasts from around the world.

To date, more than thirty-five scholarly web resources have adopted Pleiades identifiers to record the geographic aspects of their data. They publish this information online according to technical standards developed by a partner project called Pelagios, which is co-organized by scholars at the Open University, the University of Southampton, and the Austrian Institute of Technology. Together, these two projects make it possible for anyone on the web to quickly and easily gather geographically related information from any of these thirty-five websites, regardless of where published or stored. In this way ISAW and its partners are laying the groundwork for a future in which all the information about places scattered across texts, artifacts, images, and scholarly commentary can be accessed by users at all levels of interest.