Using Plokamos and Social Networks in the Classical Mythology Classroom

How can undergraduates contribute to research in a large lecture-hall mythology class? More importantly, how can such a class get beyond the rote memorization of stories and genealogies to engage with the primary documents and understand mythology in its own context?


The Perseids team has been experimenting with annotation to tackle these questions, because annotation is well known to produce deep engagement with a text in the form of close reading while promoting collaboration and conversation among students. However, one big pedagogical challenge is to design a workflow that is simple and lightweight so as not to get in the way of learning. On the technical side, the challenge is to produce good data that can then be preserved and aggregated easily.


Our first effort had students annotating Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology with the web annotation tools. The assignment was to collate the relationships among the figures in an entry of the Dictionary by annotating them using For instance, in the entry for Achilles, Thetis would be tagged as “MotherOf” and Peleus “FatherOf”. These tags used the SNAP ontology as a controlled vocabulary. The annotations were then harvested via the API and serialized according to the OA model. In further passes, students documented attestations of relationships, i.e. which ancient text says that this relationship existed. They did so by inserting a Perseus URI in the annotation pointing to the specific passage attesting the relationship. Students also documented places associated with mythological figures using Pleiades URIs. Finally, students associated each mythological figure with the words that ancient texts used to describe them. These characterizations were produced following the “Word Study” exercise in the “Breaking the Language Barrier” series by Anna Krohn and Gregory Crane. Students looked up the Greek and Latin words used to describe a mythological figure and associated it with an English equivalent in the annotations using Perseus citation URIs.


At the end of this multi-part assignment, students had thoroughly researched their mythological figure. They learned who the figure was associated with, not just in strict genealogical terms, but also other associations such as EnemyOf, Companion, etc. They also gained an understanding of the geographical associations of the figure, since Greek mythology is heavily based on local legends. Finally, the students got a sense for the literary treatment of the figures by looking at the original texts.


However, after using this workflow with two different groups of students, we found that while the assignment was valuable, the limitations of the tools affected the data gathered. For instance, the lack of a visualization in real time led to issues with the directionality of the relationships, so a mother could be labeled as the son of her child. Also, our instructions to the students had become very complex as we expanded the assignment with characterizations and attestations.


In order to continue and improve this work, our team began development of the Plokamos application. Plokamos is Greek for “something woven” and it allows students to build a network graph as they annotate. The application also allows users to see their annotations as a table, and the data will soon be downloadable as a CSV and as RDF.


Plokamos has an intuitive and minimalist interface which cuts down on the time needed for annotation and the possibilities for user error. As a result, our instructions to the students became much shorter and simpler. Plokamos also has an attractive interactive visualization which helps to see the characterizations in the context of the network and make sense of the two together.


For instance, students working on Odysseus and Amymone noticed that both these figures, who appear on each side of a Classical pelike in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, are connected to Poseidon and his offspring of aquatic monsters (fig. 1). These monsters are further connected to Odysseus because they are all eventually pitted against him and defeated. The characterizations strengthen these connections, as Odysseus is depicted with seafaring epithets, bravery, and sound thinking, while Poseidon is depicted with sea epithets and words indicating fertility and progeny. Finally, Amymone is associated with bodies of water such as springs and lakes, and with her descendants, the Danaids, who carry water eternally in Hades. In this way, Plokamos helped students to gain a better understanding of mythology at the conceptual level, and then apply this knowledge to a specific piece of ancient artwork.  


odysseusFig. 1 Social network of Odysseus and Amymone, by Christopher Duff and Patrick Margey

The Hacker and the Professor – Switching Roles

As discussed in previous posts in this series, navigating the waters of the scholarly and technical assumptions each of us bring to the Perseids collaboration is not always simple.  Some of this disconnect has been beneficial to the project — when we each stick to our respective roles and areas of expertise we have very little redundancy of effort.


But, when it comes to joint decisions about the direction of the project, our Hacker and Professor run into some disagreements. Bridget regularly has to remind the team that the inclusion of new unplanned features and workflows mean that other things we had hoped for would have to wait or be dropped entirely. But Marie-Claire can be frustrated by the “workplan-waving.” This recurring issue stems in part from Marie-Claire not being able to fully assess the complexity of the technical solutions, and Bridget not understanding what drives the scholarly and pedagogical requests. These misunderstandings make it difficult for them to decide which things should remain in the workplan and which new avenues should be pursued with students.


So, in keeping with the experimental nature of Perseids, The Hacker and the Professor have embarked on a skills exchange as an experiment of their own. Bridget has been coaching Marie-Claire through a self-initiated journey into programming and web design. Marie-Claire has been mentoring Bridget through an assignment she normally gives to her Greek mythology classes, which aims to analyze the transmission of a classical Greek myth through its representation on an ancient artifact.


It has been a truly fascinating journey so far. What follows are some of the thoughts they have about their skills exchange.



First, I have to confess that my interest in helping Marie-Claire obtain some more technical skills is not entirely altruistic … I hate the part of my job that requires that I be realistic about timeframes and the effort needed to develop code. I want Marie-Claire to gain these skills for her own growth, but also so that when we prioritize the work the burden for understanding what takes time is more fully shared. I am not a natural teacher though and I am incredibly thankful for the outstanding free resources available for this. The Khan Academy site in particular has been great in providing a logical order to tackle topics, exercises, and examples to work through.  (A side-benefit of this for the project is that it has been allowing us to think more concretely about certain features of the ePortfolio and self-assessment tools that we hope to make available on Perseids). We then take those examples and Marie-Claire applies them in the context of work she is doing with her students using the Perseids platform.  


I do believe that I have the better end of the bargain here though. Marie-Claire is a world-class teacher who cares tremendously about her students and her subject, and I could not ask for a better mentor. As a young college student I was focused on getting out into the real world as quickly as possible to save time and money and didn’t take advantage of my education to explore some of the topics in ancient religion and myth that serve as the underpinnings for our society. I have passed by thousands of objects in museums and public spaces without thinking about what they say about our social history and our internal perceptions of ourselves, our human relationships, and our culture. I have tried over the years to be more well-read and informed in a self-directed, and often misguided, sort of way, but doing so without context makes it hard to get engaged with the material. Reading the primary and secondary sources with a specific question in mind changes that. What I find particularly interesting about this experiment is that when we first embarked on it, I found myself getting distracted by thinking about superficial aspects of the digital tools that could enhance presentation of the material or my eventual reporting on it. But as I delve deeper into the actual content and discuss the questions I have on it with Marie-Claire, aspects of digital presentation and publication are actually quite far from my mind. I am very curious to see if and how they reenter the picture as I get closer to producing the results of my little research project.



Learning programming has been an exhilarating experience so far. Let me be clear: I am not saying that it all comes easy and everything is great. Quite the contrary. I struggle through the basics and often get stuck on little things. I also often get it into my head to undertake projects that are too difficult at my current level and I sink into quagmires. Yet, every small success is a reward, and Bridget’s support, patience, and encouragement is a constant motivation. In fact, I feel that I’m getting the better end of the bargain in our skills exchange, because I have access to Bridget’s advice and experience, without which it would be very difficult not to be intimidated by the material. The excellent Khan Academy tutorials also do a great job of rewarding every bit of progress. I am constantly reminded of the very similar effort I had to make when I was learning Greek and Latin, and the immense joy of discovery I experienced as I got better. As a teacher, I never want to lose sight of the challenge of learning.


In fact, becoming a better teacher motivates me through this learning experience. Anything I learn, my students will get to learn too. So as I make my way through my lessons and the sessions with Bridget, my head is buzzing with ideas for student projects that will take advantage of these skills and transmit them to my students. As a Classics professor, I strive for my discipline to be taught better and more widely, so that the wealth of wisdom and beauty that we inherited from the ancient world be made accessible to as broad an audience as possible. In today’s world, that includes code and programming. These techniques enable us to study our field in deeper and more meaningful ways than we ever could before and to disseminate the results in sustainable ways. Technology also makes our discipline more inclusive than ever before, because it allows us to approach the Humanities from a common middle ground that crosses cultural and social gaps.


As you can see, I am the dreamer in the Perseids team… For me, programming is very much like fine arts, music, or languages. It is creative, yet also exacting, and forces me to think in a disciplined fashion. Hopefully, that will help me stick to the workplan.


Alright, enough musing. Can we talk about code now?

Musing on Professing for those who Hack…

Professing is a rather mysterious activity. We teach, we write, we read, we muse, we talk… seemingly in no particular order. Understandably horrified, our hacker friends wave their workplan at us and tell us that we need to stay in scope, and that such and such feature is not to be released until the second quarter of next year, and what are the requirements please?

There is a method to the madness, I assure my hacker friends. We do have well-defined research and teaching agendas, and our progress (especially for junior professors) is meticulously charted by our institutions. Yet, the flexibility of our schedules and work culture means that we often have the opportunity (and occasionally the obligation) to take up an unplanned project. We are also responsible for mentoring student theses, the topics of which may vary quite widely, and are renewed with every cohort, every academic year.

So how do we build tools and infrastructure with equal parts of professing and hacking? Obviously, this requires true intellectual engagement on both sides, so that the result is not an immediate means to an end, but rather a process whereby Humanities questions and technology are explored and developed at the same time. Writing user stories and requirements allows us to think about our objectives, not only from the user perspective but also from the inside out. What do we want the data to do? And more importantly, how should it do it?

As Bridget Almas pointed out in her latest post, the wires-exposed nature of Perseids is helpful in the course of this experimentation because it lets us think concretely about the objects we are manipulating, namely the data and the technology itself. And yes, we acquire skills that we never thought we would have when we signed up to be Humanists.

Now, does this change professing? Yes and no. No, because experimentation is built into research and teaching. Hitting roadblocks or dead-ends is a natural part of discovery, and the process of learning is one of trial and error. Yes, because we are now placed in a global environment where we must produce data and tools that can be reused in order to ensure any degree of perennity and sustainability. Explaining this to our administrators is not always easy, since expectations for Humanities faculty are centered on single-author publications, especially books and journal articles. Even so, the highly individualized practices of our profession are eroding to make way for teamwork, which in turn requires us to stick to the workplan.

And that’s not half-bad. In my opinion, one of the greatest benefits of this method is the built-in review system. As we think through our projects with our team and scope out the requirements, we go through a back and forth that helps us all to refine our work. Then, when we release new features and workflows, we try it all out in class or in our offices. In the process, we gather a wealth of feedback that we can immediately (or as soon as the workplan allows) put to use in a new iteration. This differs radically from traditional publishing models in the Humanities, in which most feedback is received after any changes can be made. Although our Frankenstein must deal with all sorts of growing pains, at least we piece him together in a positive and forward-looking environment.

Marie-Claire Beaulieu, Perseids Professor

Perseids Participates in Visible Words

The Perseids team and Tufts University joined the Université Lyon II, l’École Française d’Athènes and Brown University for a three week field workshop in Greece this May. The workshop included 12 graduate students from either side of the Atlantic and a team of faculty composed of professors, professionals, and information technology specialists (see our Participants list). The workshop addressed current issues in the practice of digital epigraphy, especially with respect to prosopography. Faculty and students examined stones and sites in Athens, Larissa, and Thasos. Daily blog entries created by students are available on the workshop website. At each site, we produced digital editions of texts and used a variety of digital tools to extract information from the data we created.

In particular, we used Timemapper to test a new reconstruction of the famous Mur des Théores in Thasos proposed by our colleague Michèle Brunet. The inscription in question is a long list of the names of yearly magistrates in Thasos, spanning at least seven centuries of local history. As the wall has crumbled over time, the reconstitution of the arrangement of the blocks is crucial in understanding the chronological organization of the inscription. Entering the data in Timemapper and thus reconstituting the proposed sequence of magistracies has allowed us to verify the chronological succession and arrangement of the blocks. We enhanced the Timemapper workflow by creating a CITE Image Collection of drawings of the blocks and including links to specific regions of interest on these images, referenced by stable CITE URN.

We also began drafting a social network of the inscription using the SNAP prosopographical standards in order to understand the relationships among the persons listed on the stone (so far, only father/son relationships are represented). The results are displayed in a prototype of a social network visualization plugin for the Arethusa annotation framework. (This plugin was developed for Visible Words with the additional support of the Humboldt Chair for the Digital Humanities at Leipzig.) We used the annotation tool to annotate the relationships and identities according to a controlled workflow and simplified tagging conventions. We used stable URI identifiers from the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names (LGPN) to annotate the identities. We then submitted the annotations to Perseids for stabilization and preservation. Upon ingest, the Perseids system tested the annotations to ensure they adhered to the tagging conventions and converted the tool-specific annotation data according to the standard Open Annotation data model, and converted the simplified tags for the social relationships to adhere to the stable SNAP ontology.

In addition, this data can be further queried and presented in the Timemapper interface in order to compare it against  traditional prosopographical resources such as the Lexicon of Greek Personal Names (LGPN). The names of the magistrates had also been encoded with TEI/EpiDoc in the Perseids Platform in reference to the blocks on which they were inscribed. As the LGPN also provide some TEI serialization of its data, it’s possible to enrich the TEI/EpiDoc transcription with information about the persons that were recognized by the students from the encoded names.  Emmanuelle Morlock (HISoMA research center in Lyon) showed the students how they could re-use their encoded transcriptions to produce automatically – with some bits of XSLT – another Timemapper  visualization displaying face-to-face the inscribed names and the information taken from the LGPN about the identified persons. A rough calculation of the age the magistrate would have at the year of the block is also possible, thus allowing to detect some wrong identifications through inconsistencies in the dates. In this way, our work contributed in creating a better understanding of this complex ancient inscription while furthering the development of digital tools and methods.

Our workshop in Greece was also the occasion to participate in SunoikisisDC, an international consortium of Digital Classics program with a shared interest in digital methods led by the Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities in Leipzig. The Université Lyon II is an active participant in the consortium. On May 13, Michèle Brunet and Marie-Claire Beaulieu led the 6th Sunoikisis common session from Thasos focusing on Thasian involvement in the Peloponnesian War. On May 19, Michèle Brunet and her graduate students Nicolas Genis, Adeline Levivier, and Élise Pampanay led the 7th Sunoikisis common session from Thasos focusing on the history of the walls surrounding the ancient city.