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

Peer Instruction in the Lab Style Greek Course

Treebanking, and the collaborative environment that surrounds treebanking allows undergraduates to participate in research and scholarship in new ways. This fall I am a teaching assistant, or peer-instructor, for an intermediate Greek course. Although I am a Junior in college, and taking my fifth Greek course right now, but because of treebanking I am able to instruct and assess students with one year less Greek than I have.

My role in the class is to lead close reading sessions and a treebanking lab, and to grade treebanking assignments. In the close reading sections, I go over the readings, drawn from Plato’s Apology, and answer questions. In the treebanking lab, I demonstrate how to treebank different Greek constructions.  For instance, near the start of the semester a student asked about the difference between coordinating and subordinating conjunctions. I walked the class through how these conjunctions are treebanked and how the tree shows us the relationship between conjunctions and the words they govern and are governed by. In general, during this hour and twenty minute lab session students work independently on treebanking assignments while I go around the room and answer questions. When students submit their treebanks, I grade them for accuracy using the review tools built into the treebanking program we use, Arethusa. It is possible to automatically compare my treebank with a student’s treebank, and also to manually enter feedback on a particular word, sentence, of assignment.

I see real benefits for the students in the class and myself from this practice. The students in the class are able to ask every question they have about treebanking (and by extension Greek syntax) and get an answer immediately. I spent hundreds of hours treebanking Plato and Xenophon over the past summer, so I can refer back to my trees or to the resources I learned to use while I worked on that project if questions come up that I cannot answer off-hand. I think that small things, like understanding the relationship between the μέν and δέ of the classic μέν…δέ (“on the one hand… on the other hand”) construction, that would otherwise fall through the cracks are brought to the surface and addressed in this type of class. Before I started treebanking I could not have explained that the μέν…δέ construction is a type of coordination, because the structure is not explained that way in traditional Greek textbooks. That is, the traditional explanation of “on the one hand…on the other hand,” while useful for beginners to translate, does not explain the grammatical role of these words the way a treebank does. So in this way I can address the holes in students’ grammatical understanding and hopefully give them more of the tools they need to really read Greek.

But in terms of the benefits for me as a peer-instructor, I have never thought more about Greek than while I am answering questions from the students in this class. People say that you never learn something until you teach it. I cannot agree more – I had never thought about just what is going on syntactically with the “extra” ἤ in an ἤ…ἤ (“either…or”) construction. It is perfectly clear that one the ἤ’s is the coordinator and the other is only setting up the construction, but until I actually had to explain this common construction I had never thought much about it. It’s the sort of thing grammar books normally gloss over but that you have to know to understand the syntax. In short, treebanking with students has provided me a rigorous review of syntax. But the main reason this opportunity is so important is that before treebanking an undergraduate as a teaching assistant in Greek would be almost unheard of. The opportunity to really learn something through teaching has been given to me because of my experience with treebanking and the hands-on, collaborative work that treebanking encourages.


Drew Latimer

Tufts University, Greek and Latin Major

Class of 2017

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.