Pelagios Commons: Finding the Geography in History

An international collaboration dedicated to identifying and recording geographical references in historical documents is launched today at the Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge.

The Pelagios Commons initiative, led by Lancaster University, The Open University, AIT Austrian Institute of Technology, and the Institute of Catalans Studies, will involve over a hundred partners and significantly enhance access to and use of invaluable online historical resources.

The work is funded by US-based Andrew W. Mellon Foundation with two grants totalling $1,264,000.

Tools previously developed by the team to record and visualize historical geography are already being used by institutions and experts from 13 countries in 8 different languages.

“We’ve been amazed at the variety of periods and genres our partners have been able to apply our tools and techniques to,” said Pelagios Commons lead, Dr Leif Isaksen, of Lancaster University.

“Places are a constant source of reference in almost every genre of communication throughout history: from the earliest cuneiform tablets, to medieval maps, to modern correspondence networks. By identifying them we can not only map and cross-reference them, but open up entirely new research possibilities.”

While the project’s software has already allowed historians and classicists to see ancient documents in a new light, “making these software tools more accessible to a wider audience is one of the project’s principal aims, says Pelagios Commons Technical Director, Dr Rainer Simon, from AIT.

“Empowering more people to contribute collectively - publishing material online, transcribing resources, collaborating in their interpretation - is key to building up an unprecedented body of open data about the geography of the past, available online, and to everyone.”

Yet the focus of the project is not solely technology.

“The most important aspect of Pelagios Commons is the human factor,” said Community Director Dr Elton Barker, of The Open University.

“Digital approaches to the Humanities are more than algorithms and Big Data. It’s about rethinking how we can all contribute to our knowledge of the past in a medium that is decentralised, open and dynamic.”