Curtains for Zeus: Mapping a multi-media offering

Annotating the surviving text of the intrepid 2nd century traveler Pausanias is a delicate task: weighing 223,000-odd words in ancient Greek and tagging people, places, events, and their relationships. The overarching goal is using the new and improved Recogito tool to generate from Pausanias a pile of open-access data that any user can use to pry loose fresh insights into ancient Greek society, religion, history, and culture. The fun part, however, is mapping Pausanias’ travels in southern and central Greece as he described them. A temple of Zeus is easy, a dot on the map (soon to be a polygon). Tag it “Paus” to say Pausanias was present at this part of his narration. String those dots together in the right way and we have Pausanias’ travels. But not every place name is a location we should map as if Pausanias were necessarily ever there. The statue of the god is made of stone from Paros or Mt. Pentele, the columns of stone from Phrygia or Libya or the quarries at Krokeai south of Sparta. Or simple “local” (ἐπιχώριον) stone, every instance of the term a different blur on the map. A statue can be, Pausanias opines, of Aiginetan workmanship (ἐργασία), whatever that means. A tune is in the Lydian mode. And let’s leave out for now the question whether a mythical but rapidly moving and dangerous Calydonian boar is usefully represented via the dot on the map our Pleiades/DARE-based gazetteer calls ancient Calydon.

An annotator’s existential crisis of the evening: At the great temple of Zeus at Olympia there is a curtain (object, parapetasma) decorated with Assyrian weaving (ὑφάσμασιν Ἀσσυρίοις) and dyed with Phoenician purple (βαφῇ πορφύρας τῆς Φοινίκων). This curtain, an offering to Zeus by King Antiochos, was (when Pausanias saw it anyway) an object with a location, even vaguely mappable at the front of the temple. Do we map it as three dots: at the temple in Olympia, but also in Assyria (presumably a high-flown Romanism for Syria) and Phoenicia?

We huddled and decided it was time to deploy a new semantic tag, “material,” and Recogito’s relationship annotator that we are all still secretly afraid of.

Thus, four distinct annotations:

                1. The Temple of Zeus: built, naos, Olympian Zeus, Paus, Place: Zeus temple (Olympia)

                2. the curtain itself: object, parapetasma, Olympian Zeus, Paus, Place: ungazetteered;

                3. the weaving: material, ufasma, Place:Syria;

                4. the dye: material, bafê, Place:Phoinike

Then, three relationship annotations:

                2 to 1 “contains”

                3 to 2 “provenance”

                4 to 2 “provenance”

These annotations will result in a relationship tree that shows the temple of Zeus, with the curtain one of its long list of offerings, and Syria and Phoenicia as two of the regions included in Olympia’s religious universe. We are cautiously accumulating enough semantic concepts to do justice to Pausanias’ complex world but not so many as to paralyze our annotation process with delicate ontological/theological distinctions.

Relational annotation in Recogito showing the relationships of materials to a monument

Introducing the Digital Periegesis


Such in my opinion are the most famous legends (logoi) and sights (theorêmata) among the Athenians, and from the beginning my narrative has picked out of much material the things that deserve to be recorded.

Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.39.3

Sometime over the course of the 2nd century CE, a certain Pausanias of Magnesia set out to write a detailed account of a journey (or, better, journeys) through mainland Greece. The result is the Periegesis Hellados (Description of Greece), a ten-volume survey of the human footprint on that landscape, which presents a wealth of information about the towns, buildings, monuments and artefacts from Attica to Phocis, taking in a counter-clockwise route through the Peloponnese along the way. Ever since, Pausanias has been widely used as a guide for interpreting those sites, and, subsequently, for their archaeology. And yet, as recent scholars such as Will Hutton, Maria Pretzler and Greta Hawes have shown, Pausanias’s description of place does not map easily on to the archaeological record, as it is emerging through excavation. For one thing, as the passage quoted above suggests, Pausanias’s topographical narrative is shot through with past accounts (logoi) of the places through which he passes and the objects in space he sees.

The word Periegesis, which derives from the verb periēgeisthai, “to lead or show around”, has this double sense of description (of place) and movement (through space and time). In this project, funded for three years by the Marcus and Amalia Wallenberg Foundation, we aim to identify, trace, map and explore the spatial form of, and the forms of space within, Pausanias’s narrative. That is to say, we are interested in two complementary ideas: the ways in which place and objects (and peoples) within space are described, and the spatial organisation of his narrative. (In her recent review of the edited volume on The Production of Space in Latin Literature, Carolyn MacDonald notes with approval the method of “simultaneously exploring both the literary construction of space and the spatial articulation of the literary”, which is essentially our aim too.) In particular, we want to analyse the ways in which Pausanias moves through and relates places to each other.

To investigate Pausanias’s production of a Greek space, we want to address the following questions:

  • Which locations are particularly “thick” in description, which are passed over with little or no comment, and what reasons can we deduce to account for these differences?
  • What is the relationship between Pausanias’s movement through space and time? Do particular spaces attract mythological / historical description? What mythological or historical figures or periods are particularly prominent or privileged, where, and with what effect?
  • What are the intersections between the various ways in which Pausanias relates places and spaces to each other—i.e. between topographical (movement through space), chronotopic (movement through time), and analogic (comparison of places)? How does Pausanias construct his journey(s), both at the macro and micro level? What picture emerges of a “Greece” from these networked relations, in contrast to our own cartographic representation of this space?

To conduct our analysis we are using the latest technology to help us work directly with and on a digital text of the Periegesis. Specifically, we are using a semantic annotation platform in order to capture spatial information in the text in ways that will enable us to visualise and analyse the spatial form of, and the forms of space within, Pausanias’s narrative. In our next blog post we will outline this technical environment in more detail.

We are already partnering with a number of related initiatives in this space. If you would like to get involved, please feel free to contact us via our Twitter account, @PeriegesisH, or by responding to this blog.