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Writing on the Wall

In the City of Light (aka Paris), W&L professors Rebecca Benefiel and Sara Sprenkle presented their latest project—a searchable web application on ancient graffiti—at the 2014 EAGLE International Conference on Information Technologies for Epigraphy and Digital Cultural Heritage in the Ancient World. The title of their presentation was “The Herculaneum Graffiti Project: Re-envisioning the Ancient City.”

Benefiel, associate professor of classics at W&L, is a supervisor on the EAGLE project (Electronic Archive of Greek and Latin Epigraphy), an international federation of different epigraphic databases that aims to reassess all Latin and Greek inscriptions up to the seventh century A.D., digitize them and make them available online. EAGLE is based primarily in Europe, with two main centers at the University of Rome (La Sapienza) and the University of Heidelberg.

Benefiel and Sprenkle, associate professor of computer science at W&L, began their collaboration when Benefiel’s ongoing research into ancient graffiti highlighted a problem for scholars—the difficulty in visualizing where certain graffiti were located in Pompeii, since most of the wall plaster, and sometimes even the walls themselves, have now crumbled away. Most recordings of graffiti are sparse, with little visual or spatial documentation. This makes it difficult to get a sense of their aesthetics or relationships to each other or their placement in the city. So Benefiel proposed creating a visual interactive model where scholars could, for example, identify all the graffiti that came from a particular location.

In her quest to visualize inscriptions using both both text and images, Benefiel turned to her colleague Sprenkle to create a software program that would allow researchers to search topographically for graffiti. Students from Benefiel’s class prepared and entered the inscriptions during the winter term, and Sprenkle’s Spring Term class built an interface that can search all the inscriptions of one city block of Pompeii. The resulting project draws on both teams’ efforts, and the professors demonstrated the new interface at the LAWDI institute this past summer.