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The digital Periegesis

tracing the places of ancient Greece and the stories associated with them

About the research project

The Periegesis Hellados is the title of a work by a certain Pausanias of Magnesia, who was writing in the second century CE/AD. Known in English as the Description of Greece, the term periegesis derives from the verb periēgeisthai, “to lead or show around”. It is this double sense of movement (through space) and description (of place) that we wish to explore in this digital periegesis.

Pausanias’s Periegesis was, for a long time, viewed as a pilgrim’s travel guide of Greece, and has been mined by archaeologists, historians and literary scholars alike for its information on ancient sites, values and stories. Such has been its influence that it not only played a pivotal role in shaping Greek cultural identity when the modern nation-state of Greece emerged in 1821, but also contributed to the development of the discipline of classical archaeology itself.

Over the past two decades or so, however, scholarship has drawn attention to how — the extent to which and the ways in which—Pausanias's conception of Greece and his ‘route” through its landscape is highly selective and ideological (even idealising). Unlike contemporary touristic guides or narratives of pilgrimage, Pausanias shows little interest in prosaic descriptions of either the natural environs or human infrastructure (bridges, etc). Indeed, the geographic scope of his work indicates an idiosyncratic conception even of mainland Greece, which, by focusing on only Attica, the Peloponnese, and the regions around Delphi, doesn’t neatly map onto any historical notion of its territory, let alone attempt to encompass Greek settlements on the islands and coastlines of the Mediterranean. Moreover, discrepancies between Pausanias’s description and the archaeology on the ground reveal less about his errors in judgement than the force of his representation.

In this project we aim to trace, map and analyse Pausanias’s spatial (re)imagining of Greece: both his representation of the (human) geography of Greece and the spatial structure, or place-boundedness, of his text. This is to identify and reflect on not only how Pausanias describes places and objects within them, but also the spatial organisation of his narrative—how he relates places to each other. For Pausanias doesn’t simply move through space as if following a route, as he describes (and reinscribes) the layout of ancient sites or locates objects (temples, statues) in situ; he also relates places or objects to others in far-flung locations of the Mediterranean. And, further: he moves through time, as he attributes to those sites or objects (hi)stories of their construction, reimagination or demise. Precisely because issues of space, time and identity are so bound up with each other in the Periegesis, it is impossible to map this narrative by conventional means.

Building on the digitisation efforts of other initiatives, specifically the Perseus Classical Library and Pelagios, we use the web-based platform Recogito to annotate (i.e. make notes on) Pausanias’s text directly, thereby essentially treating the text itself as a database. Our annotation process aims to:

  • identify different entities (places, people, or events) within the text;
  • trace the relations between places and objects in space;
  • and describe those relations as either topographic (a place in space, as Pausanias moves through the landscape), chronotopic (a place in time, as Pausanias moves through the history of a particular place/building/statue), or analogic (places compared, as Pausanias relates one place to another in a different part of the world).

Once the text is annotated in Recogito, we will then build digital mapping tools to visualise Periegesis’s multi-layered spatial configurations, trace the movement (and transformation) of places and peoples in the contested environment of individual places, and analyse its intersections with different moments in the cultural history of the ritualised landscape of Pausanias’s Greece. This dynamic map interface, or deep map, will enable the interrogation and exploration of diverse data (text, artefact, site, map). Specifically, we will address the following research questions:

  • How does a study of movement and transformation as a dynamic, geographic visualization diversify our understanding Hellenic space and its people?
  • How do literary constructions of place and space, cultural memory and present time intersect?
  • How can we productively disrupt traditional cartographic representation, so that geographical knowledge can be plotted and explored through action, influence and memory rather than by topography alone?
  • How do we build the literacies for reading such unfamiliar, experimental interfaces?

The project is generously funded by the Marcus and Amalia research foundation for three years (2018-2021).

Temple of Apollo at Corinth
Image by Napoleon Vier
License CC BY-SA 3.0;

Contact: info@periegesis.org