Dead or alive

Yesterday evening, Patrick Sahle and Ulrike Henny from the Cologne Center for eHumanities presented the result of a project conducted together with the Academy of Sciences and Arts of North Rhine-Westphalia at the Digital Classicist Seminar in Berlin. The project consists in providing a sustainable digital environment for the publication of the Book of the Dead. This Egyptian text (although I am not really sure whether to call it a text) is composed of 200 sayings which are to be found on 3000 objects, in different languages, from different periods of time. This unequal relationship between the artifact and the text puts the question of the data architecture in an original perspective, and the data extraction from the older repertory structure into a more appropriate ontology took 2 years.

The list of the achievements does not stop there. I was especially interested in those realizations that are aimed at improving the livelihood of the Book of the Dead, e.g. the methods employed to guarantee durability and sustainability. The permanent URLs carry canonical names, easily understandable and reproducible by Egyptologists. The identification numbers are not generated internally, but in coordination with recognized databases like trismegistos  and pelagios or standards like OAI. The project deal did not only include long time archiving of your basic XML file, but also a durable web presentation. This means constant care for years ahead and I wonder how expensive the long-time funding for that kind of service can be.

Two aspects impressed me: first, the openness of an Academy of Sciences that engages in such a project on a long time scale, having no real guarantee concerning the way such things as taking care of a web presentation might involve in ten years from now. And secondly, I was in awe for the whole equipment the Center for eHumanities can display. By that, I don’t mean the computer and programming power – or not only that. I mean the fact that this equipment has obviously been constructed along time by thinking about quality standards (the way the IDE does as well) and by connecting to existing projects. It takes experience and a good nose to be able to identify digital projects that will prove stable and long-lasting cooperation partners. And a big part of your success depends on your being able to find those. The Book of the Dead project seems to me an example to follow in that regard. And I know only too well how much time this takes to build. Hat off! – and long live the Book of the Dead!


Anne Baillot

I studied German Studies and Philosophy in Paris where I got my PhD in 2002. I then moved to Berlin, where I have been living & doing research ever since. My areas of specialty include German literature, Digital Humanities, textual scholarship and intellectual history. I am currently working at the Centre Marc Bloch in Berlin as an expert in digital technologies for the humanities.

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