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Day 5: People, Objects, Ideas, and Styles

After an inspiring day out in the field, exploring the sites of Isthmia and Corinth, on Friday we went back to the Swedish Institute to develop our concepts for the Ancient Itineraries hubs. In the morning, each of the new groups worked independently refining and finalising its arguments and presentations.

The four hubs we were divided in were: people, objects, ideas, and styles – all of us working around the Faun from Pompeii and then each group selecting independently an object from Isthmia or from Corinth.

In the afternoon, it was time to present the work of the hubs. The ‘Objects’ sub-team was the first to share its reflections and questions, starting with an overview of object metadata, which could be used to research objects’ itineraries, and a discussion of perspectives that could be adopted in visualising these itineraries. This discussion raised some interesting questions, such as whether to consider the object as central in the network of encounters and events surrounding its itinerary or as a starting point to explore this same network. They delved into the complexities emerging from researching objects, by drawing on the example of a Late Roman inscription which was found at the Sanctuary of Poseidon in Isthmia. This inscription was once part of a frieze block, which was subsequently re-cut and inscribed. The inscription is in Ancient Greek, dating to the Late Roman period, and presenting a Christian text; still, the carver used the plural ‘Gods’ instead of the monotheistic ‘God’ of Christianity. As if this ancient itinerary was not enough complicate, the journey of the inscription after its discovery, in Isthmia in 1883, was equally perilous. It got lost and forgotten, until it was found again in a new location, New Corinth, in 1928, from where it returned to Isthmia, in the museum, in 2005. The archaeologists’ notebooks add layers of complexity to this history. But – and this was the crucial point raised by the hub – all these histories are presented in a simplified version in the online metadata available for this object.


The group reflected then on how the interpretation of this complex itinerary can be further conveyed, first by using Linked Open Data to enhance the current online description (e.g. implementing place names, chronologies, and controlled vocabularies, particularly from the Getty Art & Architecture Thesaurus). Secondly, the hub reflected on the needs of different audiences and how these could be supported pre-visit, during the visit, and after. In doing so, they identified a possibility in developing the online presence of the museum, through a richer website which could even link to the reconstruction of the Sanctuary of Poseidon in the popular Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed game. Then, the group recognised our privilege during the visit, when we were guided around the museum and the site by Jon Frey, who has an incredibly in-depth knowledge of the site: once the possibility of cloning our great Ancient Itineraries colleague had to be ruled out, the hub wondered how to replicate such a knowledgeable and animated storytelling for the wider public. Would a virtual guide or an app be able to convey the same experience? And finally, the hub suggested a participatory solution to keep visitors in touch with the site after the visit, by suggesting to draw an established approach within museums (‘create your own inscription’) and, in addition, enabling visitors to 3D print their work. In conclusion, the ‘Objects’ hub demonstrated effectively the difficulties in conveying through metadata the complex entangled histories that surround archaeological objects and, at the same time, stressed the need of developing solutions that speak to the unicity of each site and of its environment.


The ‘Ideas’ hub followed in presenting their reflections on the Faun and another inscription, in this case from Corinth. The team had begun by developing a ‘knowledge cloud’, a mental map of concepts emerging from their discussions around the faun. They had then organised this map in a network, and the network analysis showed as their entry-point, the Faun, had become decentred in the full network while they had progressed with their discussions. A first problematic issue they highlighted was the lack of standard terminologies to organise their ideas, hence why their ‘knowledge cloud’ was indeed a folksonomy, entangled in their own backgrounds and specific context as archaeologists and art historians taking part in Ancient itineraries. Thus they had attempted to explore past and present ideas and iconographies of the Faun, they demonstrated how networks change over time. They had mapped three main moments in the history of ideas surrounding the Faun: the ancient world, Victorians, and the contemporary period. Mythology, education, sexuality, and playfulness emerged as key concepts in all the networks. The iconographic representations and reinterpretations of the Faun they presented ranged from other Ancient Greek artefacts, such as vase paintings, to medieval manuscripts, modern sculptures in which the Faun resembled images of the Devil, and the Faun by Mallarmé, Debussy, and Nijisnki. They enhanced the possible ideas linked to this mythological creature by looking at social media, and particularly Instagram content, with the hashtag #dancingFaun discovering a range of playful posts engaging with the transgressive characteristic associated with the Faun.


Ideas around metamorphoses, playfulness, and sexuality became clear when looking at these posts. The hub noticed that other mythological figures, Erotes and Cupid, have overlapping connotations and interpretations as the Faun, although often framed in a more positive light: for example, the iconography of the Erotes – such those we saw on an ivory fragment in Isthmia – has been transferred to that of the angels in Christian times. The group had then chosen to focus on the Erastus’ inscription from Corinth. This inscription commemorates the paving of an area near the theatre by an Erastus, a notable in the Roman administration of the city. The inscription has been dated to the mid-first century AD, a fact that has led to identify the aedile Erastus with the Erastus mentioned by St Paul in his letter (Epistle to the Romans and Second Letter to Timothy) and in the Acts. As the Ideas group noted, this inscription has made the aedile Erastus visible thanks to a urban change he financed. Additionally, it was conceived to be seen in this public space, differently from the Faun, which was displayed in a private space in Pompeii. This comparison led the group to reflect on how ideas around the objects are affected by the space in which they are seen across times. The following discussion of this presentation focused on the need of inclusiveness and transparency, in which the ideas we connect to specific objects should be developed in conversations with different groups of people, with different backgrounds and experiences, and this ongoing process should be open and recognised as in constant evolution.


After the ‘Ideas’ hub, it was the turn of the ‘Styles’ team. In this case, the team had started their work by deconstructing traditional definitions of style, and had instead opted for a working definition that highlighted the peculiarity of each context in which ‘a’ style is identified and constructed. Drawing on the example of the Faun, the team asked how its style could be defined and looked at various descriptions of copies of this sculpture in museum websites and beyond. It concluded that style was often presented in free text form, as specific combinations of adjectives and words that required a connoisseurship rooted in Western art history. Could a computer identify style? It was pointed out that style is not listed in most museum online collections, where this notion is sometimes presented in the title or in the description of the object. Additionally, ‘style’ is also absent as a category in CIDOC-CRM, which tends to list it as part of the entity ‘period’, or in LIDO, which lists it among the possible object classification elements.


The group discussed then the concept of typology, at times overlapping with that of style, and argued that while typologies are useful to learn to recognise provenance, function, or periodisation of an object, they are also misleading if not contextualised. Therefore, this hub suggested that we need to go beyond the idea of typology, which is limited to the form and does not account for other data. A demonstration with Google Ngram Viewer, Web Crawling, and NLP represented an example of the possibilities and challenges that we could face when using computerised methods to detect and identify style. Ultimately, the group returned to the original question: can a computer recognise style? And if it does so, could a computer drew on patterns an data to create new objects according to a given style? And what would this mean for the future development of styles?

The last hub to present was that focused on ‘People’, who explored how our objects had been represented by people, and how it had been looked at by various groups of viewers. They began by discussing how archaeologists have visualised it in old photos, field notebooks, and in recent digital representations, as well as in museum presentations. They then looked at social media users, particularly on Instagram.


This hub’s object was a fountain in Corinth, and led the hub to consider representations of fountains on ancient Greek vases, on sarcophagus, and – like in the ‘object’ hub – in Assassin’s Creed. They also considered the link of the mythological figure of Medea with this site, noticing how objects are embedded in networks of relationships with various people. Their interest was therefore in reflecting on how to let these multiplicities of stories and individual experiences of the object emerge, so to, in turn, enrich the interpretations and narratives around the same object.


In conclusion, the four hubs have allowed us to reflect from different perspectives on a common object, the Faun, and on different objects from the same locations, Isthmia and Corinth. The hubs identified common threads, such as the users and personas we all tried to include in our reflections, and different emphasis and needs, stemming from the different networks the key themes of our hubs led us to explore. At the end of the presentations, we were therefore ready to go into a weekend of more museums and sites visits, but of course we could not do so before celebrating the birthday of our fellow Ancient Itineraries colleague, and so let’s wish once again happy birthday, Rebecca!

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