The Athenians Project: An Interview with John Traill and Philippa Matheson

John Traill with “Athenians” student contributors Abigail Ferstman, Sean Stewart, Joshua Zung, and Marielle Balanaser who is holding a brush over a wet plate with a paper on top.

John Traill with “Athenians” student contributors Abigail Ferstman, Sean Stewart, Joshua Zung, and Marielle Balanaser who is holding a brush over a wet plate with a paper on top.

Emelen Leonard (EHL): Can you say a few words about the Athenians Project and your roles in it? 

John Traill (JT):   90 years ago on the first day of the modern excavations of the Athenian Agora 25 inscriptions were found, a sign of things to come. That total has now grown to nearly 8,000, and that counts only writings on stone; 1000’s of additional inscriptions on pottery and metals, silver and bronze coins, lead curse tablets, jurors’ tokens etc. will increase the sum substantially. Benjamin D. Meritt, the leading American epigrapher at that time, and soon to join Einstein and the mathematicians Veblen and Alexander in an elite club at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, was appointed in charge of the epigraphical finds.  He started a card catalogue of the personal names on these inscriptions, as he later explained to me, for a simple, practical purpose, so that “they would not unknowingly publish the same inscription twice.”    NB  Personal names are an important constituent of Attic inscriptions; it is hard to find one without a name, and many inscriptions are crammed with them.  Athens was a democracy and people in a democracy feel important and like to see their names in print.  Athens’ neighbours were not democracies, and by comparison we have a paucity of inscriptions and names of citizens from them. Over the years with the contributions of many scholars  and with material added from literary and well as other epigraphical sources Meritt’s hand-written file grew to over 100,000 entries and became a well-known but limited tool in the study of Attic prosopography.  Access was only through personal visit to IAS or by letter to BDM . . . hardly a satisfactory situation.

I first met Meritt and used his file in the mid 1960s when, as part of my Ph.D. dissertation, I was preparing for publication a group of Agora inscriptions honoring members of the ancient Athenian Council.  I had been an undergraduate student at U of T introduced to Attic epigraphy by Mary White and later a graduate student at Harvard studying with Sterling Dow, who, incidentally, was the teacher of 4 or 5 other members of our U of T Department (we were an “endowed” Department).  In the summers, and part-time in winter sessions, I studied mathematics and sciences  (hence my interest in sciences and Scientific Terminology) becoming increasingly fascinated with the “miraculum mundi” of the day, the computer.  Ed. It did not hurt that David Packard, whose father was 2/3 owner of the HP company, was a classmate in graduate school.  At that time David was using the computer to compile a concordance of Livy. During  my several years at IAS in many conversations with BDM we discussed the possibility of computerizing his file of Attic prosopography which he formally turned over to me when I returned to Toronto permanently in 1972. I also brought with me from a friend in Princeton, Michael Barnett, a letter of introduction to the leading computerist in Canada, C. C. Gotlieb, who immediately directed me to his best students, Ivor Ladd and John Kornatowski who were then developing a database management system now called EMPRESS. Two colleagues in Classics, Mac Wallace and his sister Philippa Wallace Matheson, were working on amphoras in the Agora at this time, and Philippa who then had some free time enthusiastically joined ATHENIANS.  She has been responsible for most of the computing aspects of the Project.  Victoria College offered us physical space, and Dan Derkach accommodated our computer needs at CHASS. SSHRC  provided initial financial backing, and EMPRESS from the very beginning has maintained continuous technical support. More recently, during the last decade, through our friends at EMPRESS and in Computing Science we were invited to join a consortium of research projects in the 4 major universities of the Toronto area under the contrived acronym BRAIN (Big Data Research and Analytic Information Network).

Philippa Matheson

Philippa Matheson (PM): John Traill had done all the basic planning for Athenians and needed some one in the mid-1970s to help get the data entered from books of photocpied cards and a small library of epigraphical texts into a just then being created Multi Relational Database System. MRS was the work of a couple of computer science graduate students, whose professor thought that John’s project might be a good test of their product (it needed Greek characters, for one thing) and who was himself Greek and much intrigrued by John’s idea of making a “telephone book” of ancient Athens on computer. My job was to enter the data into the right fields in the database. First we had to settle on the fields and what should go where, which entailed much discusion and rule-making before the database was ready to start receiving data.  Some of that time was spent learning to use a computer: I typed “help” at the blinking cursor on the screen of the terminal on the work table in the project’s attic on Charles St …”There is no help on this machine” it replied. I typed “teach” … “Command not found”. I typed “learn” … and was presented with a slew of options like “file-handling, entering text, C-programming” most of which I worked my way through. So when the barebones presentation of fields in the database, one after the other, turned out to be hard to use, I was able to set up a rudimentary program that collected the required information, allowing multiple corrections, and finally entered the record into the database. Some of the mistakes I made were costly: “your program, enter delta, has been running for [some astronomical number of] CPU seconds — is this what you want?” asked an email from the Computer Science centre, whose machine we were using … Soon my role had changed to teaching new data enterers how to do it, and doing minor programming to facilitate the job.

EHL: How has the Athenians Project evolved since its beginnings in the 1970s?

JT: The ATHENIANS Project has changed enormously since its modern electronic inception in the late 1970’s. Originally  designed as a computer venture which was set up in 2 EMPRESS relational databases, main and refs, after a decade and a half of data-entry and correction practical exigencies forced us to change our course, temporarily to postpone the online release, and to produce a hard-copy version which took the form of 22 volumes of Persons of Ancient Athens, the most recent volume published in 2016 (a 23rd, very definitely the last, is nearing completion).  The TEX programs translating the computerized data into print were developed by Philippa, who at the same time has been active in 2 other computer projects, amphoras, which goes back to her early Agora studies, and the bibliographical classical reference tool, TOCS-IN.  Our commitment, however, has always been to an on-line computer resource, and to that end lately, by which I mean especially  the last 4 months during the lockdown caused by the covid virus, we have been implementing a translation to Unicode.  This format with polytonic epigraphical Greek is a sine qua non for online access. Once more Philippa has been doing the programming, including the invention of many features required for our peculiar needs, e.g. a full accent system for the older Attic alphabet. These have been exciting times for our Project.  We can at last report that all 19 databases have now been converted to Unicode,  our “athuni”. It is a veritable dream come true.

EHL: Did you anticipate that the Project would be so long lasting? Is there an end in sight?

JT:  As to the termination of the Project we have harbored no delusions; we knew at the very beginning that as long as there were new epigraphical and papyrological finds and discoveries in scholarly research, to say nothing of continuous computer enhancements, our Project would continue. Over the years we have widened our research to include topographical data, in particular an interactive electronic map of Attica which joins persons and places and links our databases of  topographical and prosopographical information. We have also been exploring the means of digitizing squeezes, paper impressions of ancient inscriptions of which the ATHENIANS Project has a collection of about 5,000.  In addition to goal of presenting digital images of these squeezes on our 2 websites we are exploring the analysis of the data with a view to joining of fragments and the identification of the ancient inscribers.  For the linking of such diverse sources as epigraphy, prosopography and topography EMPRESS offers a particularly suitable environment.

PM: It was clear from the beginning that Athenians, like the Peloponnesian War, would be both great and lengthy. The only surprising thing to me is how difficult it has been to overcome the original SSHRC edict and switch from paper to screen. That is now happening with some minor programming on my part to take the information from the database dump files and convert the roll-your-own Greek transcription John has been using all these years into a more legible HTML unicode version (similar in format to the printed volumes) for online browsers. We are working also on a more efficient way of searching it than just using your browser’s “find” function. In that sense there *is* an end in sight: volume 23 will be the last printed, and future updates will apply to the HTML version only. As long, that is, as there is someone (and at moment, that means only John Traill) to keep up with recent publications and add new ancient Athenians, and new information about ones already known, to the database. But even if he stopped updating it tomorrow, the mass of searchable information it contains will be a resource for classicists for a long time to come.

EHL: What were your experiences like as pioneers of digital classics? How receptive were other members of the discipline? 

JT: Of course we had opposition at first.  It took many attempts to win support from funding bodies and from some superiors who were “traditionalists.” They had an “allergy” to new technology, but in the end the technology won, allergies were overcome, and opinions changed.

When we started we were aware of only one other computer system for ancient Greek, David Packard’s Ibycus, and he, critical of its faults, urged us not to use it, but rather to develop our own system. TLG was under construction at this time and David and I discussed what format it should take. We also exchanged information with a later graduate-student friend at Harvard, Greg Crane, who was then developing his Perseus website.

ATHENIANS became a personal obsession and I must have spent 60,000 hours in-puting and correcting data. The project resembled a traditional Ontario family farm: all 3 daughters, Ariana, Larisa, and Corinna, who studied Classics at Toronto, from a very young age worked on ATHENIANS.

PM: Well … some outright hostility but mostly indifference. Not a very humanistic activity, programming, perhaps? Some people were actively interested: Richard Tarrant, then chair of the Dept, dropped in to see what I was doing one day, and it happened that there was a notice on the screen about an error in my program in line one thousand and something. We had a pleasant half hour putting the infant database through its paces, and as he was leaving I asked if by any chance he could tell me what the line number on the screen was when he came in? He did. Perhaps it takes a certain type of mind to appreciate computers which textual critics and epigraphers (not to mention other archaeologists) have … For me it was an escape — from the “I’ll see if I can find something you can look that up in” way in which I got answers to my questions as a student into a world of immediate, accurate feedback that keeps you moving ahead with the job and gives a sense of achievement. Virginia Grace, with whom I worked periodically on her amphora archive at the Agora in Athens, was highly dubious of our plans to computerize her files, and used to refer, pejoratively, to “pushing buttons.” Then one day she asked me if the list I had just printed out for her could by any chance be sorted — wasn’t that something computers could do? So I’m always a bit wary of people who *sound* hostile. In fact they usually come round in the end. But perhaps because there is a learning curve, and it seems so mathematical, and the “garbage in, garbage out” syndrome has produced so much bad work, humanists tend not to value “pushing buttons.”

EHL: How, in your views, can modern technology shed new light on the ancient world? 

JT: The accumulation of large databases of information and the development of sophisticated large-scale data-mining techniques widen and enhance traditional tools, and also offer a vast range of new techniques in data analysis and visualization for the exploration of the ancient world.

PM: I don’t think any technology can do exactly that. New light can only be shed on the ancient world when people who want to know things think up ways to find out and apply those new ways. What modern technology can do is to keep expanding the new ways, and thus encourage us to want to know more things. How many non-Athenian women were buried in Athens with a gravestone in the form of a stele (i.e., a substantial monument)? Inscribed in verse? Between certain dates? Where did the women come to Athens from? Do we know what they did when they arrived (aside from getting buried)? Family? One might want to know, but probably not enough to spend many years extracting the data from printed sources. When the Athenians database is available to answer such a question for someone doing a search of 100,000 records in a few minutes, finding out no longer has such an exorbitant cost in terms of time. Perhaps that is as good a measure as any to judge technological advance by: what desirable end does it make possible that it was not practical to pursue before?