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Some thoughts on Corinth’s Digital Notebooks

I was pretty excited when the American School announced that they had released so many of Corinth Excavation's (and Athenian Agora's) notebooks the past week. First, I am working on a paper that thinks considers how recording archaeological data in notebooks differs from recording archaeological data using digital technology, and I used the famed Corinth notebooks as an example in the paper. Next, i was excited to look at some of Carl Blegen's notebooks since I knew he was a keen observer of the landscape and often included some details of the contemporary Greek countryside in his published articles (for example, his description of the location of Gonia here). I noticed that they included four notebooks from his work at Zygouries. The Bronze Age site Zygouries was near the imposing Frankish castle of Ay. Vasileios where I had spent a couple of grueling days many years ago and I wondered if Blegen had anything to say about the site, the village or the countryside.

So, I eagerly searched for Blegen and Zygouries and was promptly rewarded with four notebooks from the site. The first notebook, I think, included some of the detail about which I was curious. Moreover, the American School project had meticulously scanned even the outsides of the notebook giving preserving the tactile, physical quality of the notebook. The well-worn binding surely preserved some of the actual dirt excavated from Zygouries as well as the marks of generations of scholars who had leafed through Blegen's field notes with critical eyes.

At the same time there were issues. First, Blegen writes in a small, stylish hand and in pencil which is difficult to read at the resolution of scans that the American School provides. Now, someone who had read Blegen's notebooks first hand might have found it easier to decipher. I also found that downloading the page as an image and fussing a bit with it in Photoshop allowed me to improve the contrast and zoom in a more sophisticated way to make it seem easier to read (I am not sure whether I did anything, in fact). What I really wanted, it turned out was a transcription of Blegen's notebook ( (consider, Jack Davis's transcription of Blegen's Red Cross notebook here). Now, it's not the American Schools fault that I could not read Blegen's writing or that they didn't provide a transcription (the low resolution of the image is another matter), but as I thought about this I began to imagine a parallel site where scholars could upload their transcriptions of notebook pages. These would be keyed to the stable urls provided by the American School and presented in a wiki which would allow for and track revisions. I am sure that some notebooks are useful enough and commonly investigated enough to warrant this.

As I continued my browsing of Blegen's notebooks, I came across another strange anomaly. Notebook 3 from Zygouries is clearly not in Blegen's hand. In fact, the first page of the notebook tells us that it is in the hand of J. P. Harland. Harland's name, however, is not included in the public metadata for this notebook. The metadata for later notebooks clearly indicate the name of the recorder. For example, the metadata for Notebook 974 clearly stated that the legendary David Pettegrew and Thomas Henderson were its authors. This got me thinking, on the one hand, about the some text from the description of the collection on the webpage:

Using day journal diaries, archaeologists began recording finds, monuments and excavation, as well as their daily life in Greece. Often their thoughts and personalities are evident on the pages. More recent notebooks are more ‘objective’ and standardized but offer no less to the interested reader.

Clearly the recorders of the metadata became more "objective" as well in that they documented the names of the recorders and not just the excavation director (in the case of Notebook 974 it would be Guy Sanders). The failure to do this in the earlier notebook captures a bit of the spirit of an earlier era of "heroic archaeology" where the personality of the excavation director stood in the foreground of knowledge production. (It also seeming has to do with the difference between Blegen's project at Zygouries and the American School's project at Corinth).

The absence of Harland's name from the public notebook metadata also made me return to the idea that this could be the kind of data captured by the public as they use these notebooks. If it was possible, I would not have hesitated to add Harland's name to the notebook's metadata or to some publicly tagged version of the metadata. I might have even been inclined to add a link to Harland's papers at Princeton which Kostis Kourelis pointed out to me especially since he apparently kept a a dairy for over 50 years. One could imagine a researcher at Princeton adding notations from Harland's diaries to dates in the notebooks which would allow a researcher to "drill sideways".

I know some people who committed tremendous energy to this massive digitization project read this blog from time to time, and I want to stress that my remarks here are not meant to be critical of the tremendous effort that this project took. In fact, my only criticism of the existing interface — the lack of high resolution images — I am sure is easily adjusted in the future as more people have access to significant bandwidth necessary to handle large images. At the same time, my observations about the lack of public markup to these incredibly valuable archaeological resources may be more directed at the scholarly community who makes use of this material than the institution that provided it. After all, it would not be particularly difficult to begin such a project (although it would benefit immeasurably from collaboration with the American School). More importantly, the idea of collaborative projects which add real value to the data available on the web shows how thinking about the internet publication has changed quickly over the past five years. The next generation of digitalized archaeological data is likely to expand the concept of the notebook, context, photograph to include a range of dynamic metadata that embeds the digital artifact within an academic and intellectual context that is every bit as robust as the archaeological context provided by the original excavator.

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Categories: The New Media, Web/Tech
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