Major New Online Resource for the Study of Ancient Antioch Launched

Wednesday, Aug 18, 2021

The Visual Resources Collection has announced the launch of a major new online resource for the study of Antioch on the Orontes, one of the great cities of the Hellenistic and Roman worlds that remained an important center throughout the Byzantine, Seljuk, Crusader, and Ottoman periods. The site was excavated between 1932 and 1939 by an academic consortium headed by Princeton. Some of the excavation’s findings were published, but a substantial archive of material held at Princeton remained unpublished and understudied. With increasing interest in the site of Antioch, along with more sophisticated techniques of analysis and changing interests in the study of ancient cities, these rich archival holdings have the potential to provide wide-ranging insights into the history, life, and material culture of the ancient city and its environs.

The New Committee for the Excavations of Antioch and Its Vicinity (hereafter NCEAV) was formed to explore how new research opportunities could be opened up by digitally integrating the collections that are divided between the Princeton University Art Museum, the Princeton University Library, and the Department of Art and Archaeology. In 2010, the committee began a pilot project analyzing one area of the Antioch dig, sector 17-O, which was the focus of an interdisciplinary undergraduate seminar and a public website. The results of that scholarship will be published in A. Asa Eger et al., The Princeton Excavations of Antioch: Sector 17-O (Brepols Publishers, forthcoming 2022). The two-volume book, with contributions by a dozen international scholars, will be the first publication in the new series Antiochene Studies. Two additional volumes, focusing on sectors Daphne and 13-R, have been proposed. All three volumes deal with areas of the excavation that the original team was unable to publish adequately due to the start of World War II. The second volume, The Archaeology of Daphne, will offer the first in-depth archaeological survey of that suburban area.

The initial step in the integration of the campus Antioch collections, as well as the creation of an interactive counterpart to the print publications, has now been developed: an online, searchable database of the extensive documentation of the excavation held by the Department of Art and Archaeology. The collection consists of over 7,000 photographs and many thousands of drawings, plans, reports, diaries, and notes that Visual Resources, with the help of many undergraduate student workers, has scanned and photographed over the past five years. The publication of the raw data of the excavation—the original archival documentation—serves as a digital companion to the original and forthcoming print publications and will greatly increase the discovery and access of the information, allowing new methods of analysis and scholarship.

The NCEAV decided to utilize the data management system OCHRE (Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment). The platform, which is facilitated by the OCHRE Data Service team at the University of Chicago, is a stable and widely-used archaeological management system. The support staff has extensive professional experience managing data from legacy archaeological collections, a background in the archaeology of the Orontes River Valley, and connections with current excavations in the area. The management system was introduced by Stephen Batiuk, senior research associate and lecturer in the Department of Near & Middle Eastern Civilizations at the University of Toronto and project manager of CRANE (Computational Research on the Ancient Near East), who offered his digital mapping expertise at no cost, as well as covering cost of the annual subscription to the OCHRE platform for the Antioch project. The OCHRE database environment is a unique system: it is a database that can be used in the field or with legacy data, and everything in it can be easily published to the web by following standard formatting and reused through an application programming interface (API). OCHRE thus eliminates the middleware that often exists between raw archaeological data and the web.

In April 2020, the collaboration with OCHRE Data Service began with the intent of assigning summer work in the data management system to undergraduate archaeology students who were unable to participate in fieldwork due to the pandemic. Sandra Schloen, manager of the OCHRE Data Service, and Miller Prosser, associate director of digital studies at the University of Chicago, initiated the Antioch database environment in OCHRE and began to outline the data structure to receive the digital files and metadata produced by Visual Resources. In February 2021, thanks to generous funding from the Department of Art and Archaeology, an OCHRE technology specialist, Nicholas Schulte, was hired to integrate the files and data into the platform. The team worked tirelessly to structure, clean, and create relationships within the platform that would allow consistent search results. None of the physical material for the project has ever left the archive at Princeton, and all the master digital files are maintained within the department by Visual Resources.

One of the most remarkable elements of this project is the geographic information system (GIS) work done by Stephen Batiuk. A consistent request from researchers has been for a comprehensive overview of the excavation site, and no such plan exists in the archive. The digital mapping by Batiuk allows researchers to understand the grid layout and zero in on their sector of interest, as well as seeing building features as the excavation team mapped them. One aspect of the city that has consistently been of great interest to scholars is how Antioch developed through time. The digital resources now available to researchers will allow further study of this material for use in this and other types of studies. Plans are in place to expand this work to the other nearby excavated sites Daphne and Seleucia.

Last, but certainly not least, the new project website features scans of the five published volumes made available via open access, thanks to the generosity and work of Princeton University Press and the Princeton University Library. These particular volumes contain pencil annotations showing the catalogued image numbers next to their published figures, a very helpful aid when requesting images for publication. Everything in the project is available through a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, and any higher-resolution images needed will be made available by Visual Resources free of charge. Work is underway to ingest the numismatics images and data compiled by Alan Stahl, curator of numismatics at Firestone Library, into the platform. As Visual Resources and the Numismatic Collection continue to scan, photograph, and catalogue items, the project will be updated, and images of and information on the artifacts from the excavation held by the Princeton University Art Museum will also be added.