New machines and old texts converge at historic study centre in France

New machines and old texts converge at historic study centre in France

European computer scientists and palaeographers recently converged on a Provence estate for a residential digital palaeography conference organised by the Centre's Senior Researcher Dr Ségolène Tarte with Dr Dominique Stutzmann of the Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes.

Fondation des Treilles is a study centre near to the village of Tourtour in the upper Var region of Provence. Its founder, Anne Gruner Schlumberger, dedicated the domain to the development of creativity, where reflection and intellectual exchange could flourish.

This November, 18 participants from universities all over Europe including Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Austria and the UK met with the aim of facilitating communication and interaction to advance research in the fields of palaeography and computer sciences.

Digital palaeography emerged as a research community in the late 2000s. For engineering and computer scientists, work in this area focuses on image enhancement, automated reading for ancient languages, modelling for ontologies, and the collection and incorporation of user-feedback. Historians of writing and scripts (palaeographers), however, concentrate on dating and locating scripts, graphical analysis, classification of scripts and finding out how scripts evolve.

At the crossroads of these interests, collaboration between the fields presents its own challenges, raising heuristic, cognitive, and epistemological questions. The seminar gathered researchers from both arenas to share their progress and deepen understanding of, and mutual engagement with, the methods, processes, and tools used by the different research teams present.

The Fondation des Treilles seminar follows on from previous workshops in 2012 and 2014 at Schloss Dagstuhl – Leibniz Center for Informatics, on computation and palaeography, and the integration of palaeography and computerized tools developed to analyse digital images respectively. The biennial meetings aim to support participants in developing computerized technologies to enrich palaeographical knowledge and accelerate time-consuming processes, and to facilitate the sharing of both computer science and palaeographical methodologies.

Computerized palaeographic tools are often 'black boxes' which put the palaeographers on one end of the system (output), with little opportunity to directly influence how the system performs or communicate with it using natural palaeographic terminology; and palaeographers are also 'black-boxes', whose expertise isn't always readily made explicit. The long-term desire is to have the scholar at the centre of the computerized system, allowing interaction and feedback in order to both fine-tune performance and better interpret and communicate results.

Upon her return from the seminar last month, Dr Tarte said of the meeting:

"'Palaeography' and 'experimental' are words that don't seem likely companions. Yet, in this seminar, we've actually brought them together. I think that one of the major outcomes of this seminar is that we now think of Digital Palaeography as an experimental science, one that explores the possibilities of computational tools by experimenting with them, and that designs experiments in order to iteratively develop palaeographical hypotheses and assess them.

And that's one of the ways in which digital palaeography integrates the scholarly interests of palaeographers and computer scientists alike."