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Hestia: The home for the spatial analysis of Herodotus’s Histories




Sometime in the middle of the fifth-century BC, Herodotus, a Greek living on the coast of Asia Minor in a town called Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum, Turkey) set out to explain the origins of the Great War that had taken place a generation before between his peoples, the Greeks, and the Persians. The result is his Histories, in which he explores the world of his time, the conflicts that had given rise to it, the noteworthy deeds of various kinds of people in it, and the towns and cities that had risen and fallen throughout it, using the new medium of his age—writing—to represent the world around him.

The Hestia Project takes up Herodotus’s enquiry through the new medium of our time—digital technology. Phase 1 involved a collaborative team of researchers from Classical Studies, Geography and Digital Humanities. Using a digital text of Herodotus’s Histories, from which we extracted all place-names, we used web-mapping technologies such as GIS, Google Earth and Narrative TimeMap to investigate the cultural geography of the ancient world through the eyes of one of its first witnesses. Our aims were twofold. First, we try to disrupt traditional cartographic ideas of geographic spaces as points on a map, by using the digital medium to read text and space alongside each other, thereby allowing a sense of space as something lived and experienced to emerge. In particular, we construct network maps of the relations between places in Herodotus in ways that challenge the schematic division of the world as a clash between East and West, between Asia and Europe. Second, we seek to enable users of different expertise and interests—researchers, students and general enthusiasts—to use our technologies for themselves.

Hestia phase 2 took this experimental approach to analysing the geography of a written text and: (1) explored 4 key issues regarding big data in the humanities; and (2) consolidated the technological development in an innovative suite of tools for reading Herodotus’s Histories.

1. Big data in the humanities: four key issues With the digital medium rapidly transforming the ways in which information is viewed and processed, data visualisation is one of the key challenges to academic and non-academic groups alike. Cultural heritage groups, government agencies and firms working in the digital economy, all have to deal with the problem of presenting big data in ways that make sense to their users but that do not reduce the complexity of the data or give a misleading picture. Hestia2 uses the key intellectual outcome of the original project—the analysis of spatial relations embedded in literary texts—to discuss humanistic approaches to data visualisation which, by virtue of being based on real content that is complex and messy, can help contribute to this debate. In a four-part seminar series, Hestia2 considers:

  • network analysis techniques, methods and models used for data exploration – hosted by the Archaeological Computing Research Group, Southampton;
  • digital visualisations of data, especially complex literary texts – hosted by the Stanford Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis;
  • the role of GIS in mapping texts – hosted by the Department of Geography, Birmingham;
  • the extent to which digital technologies help non-academics access and comprehend research – hosted by the Institute of Educational Technology, The Open University.

Recordings of the presentations can be found on our youtube channel, while our blog features posts that go into more detail about some of these different topics.

2. Consolidating the technology: HestiaVis and the OpenLearn Herodotus To promote wider engagement among researchers, students and general enthusiasts with the original project’s re-imagining of the geography of Herodotus’s Histories, Hestia2 consolidates its technological innovations in two ways.

First, building on a post-Hestia project called Google Ancient Places (itself inspired by Hestia), we have developed an intuitive user interface for reading text and maps alongside each other. This platform, called HestiaVis, allows users to explore the Histories in different ways. A Summary View gives you a big-picture perspective on what places occur in the book as a whole and where they appear in the narrative structure, so that you can grasp the total distribution of place references at a glance. The Reading View offers an interface for reading the text, including a narrative timeline and a map of recently-referenced places, so that you can move through the narrative and see locations appearing and ‘fading from memory’. The Place Detail view provides deeper information about a particular geographic location, including network maps of related places based on their reference together in the narrative (i.e. their textual, not geographic, proximity) and links out to data provided by other projects, so that you can find out more about the places you are interested in from other online resources.

Second, we have worked with The Open University’s OpenLearn Unit to produce free and open educational resources that make use of our technologies. Why not try out OpenLearn Herodotus for yourselves and take up the challenge of Herodotus’s Histories to go and pursue your own enquiry.

  • Hestia phase 1 was funded by an Early Career Grant from the AHRC (2008-2010)
  • Hestia phase 2 was supported by the AHRC's Follow-on Funding scheme (2013-2014)
  • Follow us on Twitter: @Hestiaproject


Other Publications

  • Barker, E, Bouzarovski, S., Pelling, C. and Isaksen, L. (2010): Herodotus Earth: mapping and networking the Histories. Iris (http://www.irismagazine.org/). [Popular publication]
  • Barker, E, Bouzarovski, S., Pelling, C. and Isaksen, L. (2011): HESTIA (the Herodotus Encoded Space-Text-Imaging Archive): an interdisciplinary project. In Research Infrastructure in the Digital Humanities: Science Policy Briefing of the European Science Foundation 2011.

Editors: Elton Barker and Leif Isaksen