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Ancient Greek writings inscribed in stone, digitized by Case classicist

Finding information about ancient Greek inscriptions used to take years of research and countless hours tracking down answers in the library. Through contributions by Case classicist Paul Iversen’s work with the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) Greek Epigraphy Project, classics scholars now can access and search more than 150,000 inscriptions through a comprehensive digitized database in a matter of minutes.

Information is currently available in CD-ROM form, but the project will shortly launch a Web site that can be updated regularly as new research surfaces. “Once the web site is available to the public, the search for information on inscriptions will be as short as a blink of the eye,” says Iversen, an assistant professor in the Department of Classics.

Iversen said the latest CD-ROM has enough information from books and journal articles about ancient Greek inscriptions that in paper form, the information could fill his third-floor office in Mather House at Case and spill out into the hallways.

Those CDs are finding their way into almost every classics department in the country and around the world, according to Iversen, who came to Case in 2001.

He can attest to the speed of data-mining inscriptions. While his work is collecting, entering, editing and proofreading inscriptions and related information from established journals and books, every so often something intrigues him.

An inscription on a stone fragment found in a private collector of antiquities in Rome was one item. Iversen said it was clear from the numeric system and the script employed on the stone that it had to come from some other region of Magna Graecia.

A quick search of the project’s database of ancient recorded writings from 750 BC to approximately AD 500 proved this hunch correct.

“Lo and behold, it was part of an inscription of donations during the First Cretan War of ca. 205 to 202 BC on the island of Cos,” said Iversen. He was able to link the fragment to a missing piece of an artifact now in the British Museum.

He said someone named Ross published the inscribed donation list in 1845 while the piece was intact in the stairwell of the church of Saint John of Jerusalem on Rhodes.

With a search through the PHI database, Iversen tracked the inscription to the island of Cos where it was made and later transported to the church on nearby Rhodes. Eventually the church became a mosque. One day, gunpowder stored in the mosque exploded to shatter the donation list. Most of what remained was given by the Pasha of Rhodes to Prince Edward Albert of Wales, who then donated the damaged inscription to the British Museum in 1873. One of the pieces, however, ended up in Rome.

Iversen’s search is one of many searches are leading to new discoveries through the electronic corpus of Greek inscriptions provided by the PHI Greek Epigraphy Project that began 17 years ago as a collaboration between Cornell University and The Ohio State University (OSU). “The PHI disk has revolutionized the way epigraphists do their work,” explains Iversen.

PHI was founded and funded by David Packard Jr.—also a classicist and the son of the Hewlett-Packard computer giant. The computer guru’s son saw the potential for digitizing known inscriptions and developed special software and computers called “Ibycus” machines. A new generation of computer software called “Betacode Editor” now enables the project to word process on Macintosh computers and soon they will launch a Web site for wider use for researchers and students with PCs and Macs.

Iversen currently is contributing to the project by finding, editing and entering into the database all the known inscriptions on stone, marble, metal and even some ceramic from the regions of Boiotia and the Megarid, which are north and west of Athens respectively. These inscriptions are found on grave markers, at the bases of statuary, on the sides of buildings, on ceramic vessels or even lead or gold leaf message scrolls with prayers or curses left at temples of the oracles or in grave sites.

Using a standardized editing system called the Leiden Conventions that reduces inconsistencies in reporting the ancient writings, he inputs the known Greek symbols and places notations where missing words or letters might be. He also reports where the inscription was found and some of the bibliography of earlier research published about the work.

“Inscriptions,” Iversen says, “unlike writings on papyrus which are usually copies of copies of copies, come down to us directly with no intervening hand. They are thus original documents. And the PHI project has been pivotal in making sure the texts of these Greek inscriptions survive the jump from printed to digital form to be available for future scholars.”

In his first year of studies towards his doctoral degree in classics at OSU in 1989, Iversen took an epigraphy class from Stephen V. Tracy, a world-renowned scholar of Greek epigraphy and the administrator for OSU work with the project.

Iversen was hooked. Tracy asked him to join the project. Since 1990, he has contributed on a full- or part-time basis collecting, entering and editing the texts of known inscriptions as a tool for scholars. “While I have logged in many hours on the project over the last 15 years,” Iversen says, “the lion’s share of the work on the project has been done by John Mansfield and Nancy Kelly at Cornell University, and Philip Forsythe at The Ohio State University. They are due the most credit.”

The project’s work is one of the first major update of known inscriptions in several regions of Magna Graecia that has taken place since the publication of multi-volume Inscriptiones Graecae series was begun in 1873. By updating the work begun with the Inscriptiones Graecae volume VII in 1892 that covered the regions of Boiotia and the Megarid, the project has almost doubled the corpus of Boiotian and Megarian inscriptions. Iversen has also worked on the material from Thessaly, Epeiros, Illyria, the Upper Danube, Thrace, Moesia Inferior, Scythia Minor, Dacia, the North Black Sea, Rhodes, the Rhodian Peraia, Cos, Cyprus, Aegean Islands, Italy, Sicily and the West.

In addition to the PHI project, Iversen teaches Greek and Latin classes, a SAGES (Case’s new undergraduate seminar program Seminar Approach to General Education and Scholarship) class called “Myth, Ritual & Society in the Ancient World,” other Classics courses, such as“Myth, Hero and Performance in Greek Literature”, an ancient history course called “The Ancient World” and an etymology class for medical students at Case.


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