Putting monuments in boxes – or the trials and tribulations of setting up a research database

I’m pleased to be say that of last week my “Monuments of Roman Greece” project has its own website (http://romangreece.classics.ox.ac.uk). The main feature of the website is that it gives access to a searchable database of public monuments in Greek cities. Both the website and the database are works-in-progress. A more user-friendly search platform is still being developed and I’m still busy expanding the catalogue of monuments. But I wanted to get it online as soon as possible both so that people could start using it and so that, hopefully, I can get some feedback on it. I’ve been meaning to write a blog piece about the database for some time now and now seems an opportune moment.

Screenshot 2016-03-22 14.08.41
Screenshot of one of my database entries

The intention behind the database is to bring together things that were once found together but which have become separated, both through the chance survival of different types of evidence and the practices of modern scholarship. I’m talking, of course, about the statues, tombs, carved reliefs and other monuments that filled the public spaces of Greek cities under the Roman Empire. Few of these monuments survive intact but evidence for hundreds of them does survive in the form of (broken) pieces of sculpture, inscribed statue bases or mentions by ancient authors. The basic premise behind my project is that not enough attention has been paid to the extent to which spatial setting contributed to the meaning of ancient public monuments. I’m interested in questions such as how setting up different types monument in the same space – for example statues of benefactors and gods in a city’s agora – might have had an effect on how such monuments were read and experienced, how different spaces were frequented by different groups of people who would have been the audience for these monuments.

Probably the biggest challenge in putting the database together was deciding on the different categories of monument and public space that I want to be able to distinguish especially because one of the key aims of my research is to test the usefulness of the distinctions we usually tend to draw between ancient monuments, and statues in particular. Labelling is reassuring because it gives us a feeling that we understand whatever subject we’re studying but that feeling can be misleading. In the case of ancient monument, I’m not so sure that the distinctions we draw between, say, portraits statues set up as political honours and those set up as votive offerings to the gods, or even between portrait statues and statues of emperors, heroes, and gods were anywhere near as clear-cut in the ancient world as in they are in academic books and articles.

All of these different statues spoke a similar visual language and, crucially, stood side-by-side in the same areas of public space. This created potential for ambiguity so that a statue of a muscular nude athlete could be mistaken on first glance for a hero or a long-dead Hellenistic king. It also meant that anybody who was granted a permanent likeness of themselves in stone or bronze had something in common with the gods that their fellow mortals did not. Thinking spatially, about just how different configurations of different types of monument were created in different settings is a useful way of exploring the overlapping meaning between these different types of statue.

To create a database that would allow me to do that it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be very useful to work with the standard categories like “honorific portrait”, “votive portrait”, “Imperial portait”. However, it was equally clear that in finding new ways to classify monuments there was a danger of simply creating the pattern that I was expecting to be. And of course, a further problem, is that I want the database to be useful to other people which it wouldn’t be if I strayed too far from conventional classifications.

I think that the categories I’ve come up with are suitably broad to allow monuments that might have had something in common to end up in the same category, while still allowing others to distinguish between the types well-known to modern scholarship. Statues of emperors, honorific monuments to politicians and portraits of family members set up as dedications to gods can all be found under portrait statues but, where we have that information I’ve also included fields to show who they were set up by and who they were set up for. Statues of gods, personifications and heroes are separate categories, as are votive offerings (of non-human subjects), public graves and paintings.

In entering the data I’ve come across quite a few problem cases which it was hard to know how to categorise. Should a statue of a real man, set up to honour him for political service to his city, but which names him as a “hero” on the base be put in the same category as a statue of a mythical hero like Theseus? To which category do statues of Herakles, the hero who became a god, belong? And, if it’s straightforward to categorise statues of “The Demos” (the People) as personifications to distinguish them from “real” gods and goddesses like Zeus, Athena and Aphrodite, what about statues of Eirene (Peace), Ploutos (Wealth) and Hygeia (Health)? In many cases I’ve had to make snap judgements that simply cannot be completely satisfactory but which I hope makes enough sense to allow me to use the catalogue to investigate the kind of issues I’m interested in, while still allowing others to find the kinds of information they might want to draw from the database.

Making the database has been an education and I suppose the main lesson I’ve drawn is this: databases are useful for investigating the past because they let you order reality and put it into neat little boxes but you need to think hard about the shape and size of those boxes, especially when it is the messiness of historical reality itself that you are trying to examine.

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Postscript: as I stressed at the beginning the database is a work in progress so I’d be glad of any feedback on either how I’ve set it up or on the individual entries. Please do leave comments here or use the feedback form on the website.

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