LIFE

Building a digital treasury of Greece’s cultural capital

TASOULA KARAISKAKI

TAGS: Culture, Archaeology, History, Innovation

Apart from the thrill of exploration and discovery, the Athena Research and Innovation Center’s Institute for Language and Speech Processing (ILSP) serves multiple purposes, including conserving, analyzing, studying, promoting and disseminating Greece’s massive cultural capital. With the country now in lockdown, ILSP also serves to bring the multifaceted wonders of the Greek civilization into people’s homes with just a click of a mouse.

Curious about a 5th century BC Attic lekythos vase? Click on the image to view it from every angle, see where it was found, tour the excavation site and soar above it to get an idea of the broader location. Want to visit the Rotonda in Thessaloniki? You can fly in from above, enter the northern port city’s oldest church and explore the details of its architecture and interior. Feel like perusing rare manuscripts held by the Hellenic Institute of Byzantine and Post-Byzantine Studies in Venice? ILSP lets you do that too, after going to the Italian city and digitally recording its collections using huge scanners and other specialized equipment.

“We provide tools so users can navigate ILSP’s electronic treasures, seek specific audiovisual information, locate and analyze historical manuscripts or polytonic texts and transcribe Byzantine or older texts into modern Greek. They can create material for teaching dance, identify pieces of music with similar characteristics, turn an audio file into a score or examine all the components of a plate of food,” says ILSP director Vassilis Katsouros.

The Cultural and Educational Technology Institute (CETI), founded in the northeastern city of Xanthi in 1998, was one of the first bodies to develop digital archaeology in Greece. In 2003 it was integrated into the Center of Integrated Research for the Information Society, which was renamed the Athena Research and Innovation Center in 2006.

Among other areas of expertise, the Athena Center has workshops for the physicochemical analysis of materials and three-dimensional geolocation imaging to reconstruct objects and monuments and the sites where they were found. Using cutting-edge technologies on the ground and in the air (such as drones) experts can map the smallest characteristics of a find or area that allow them to create precise reconstructions.

“The image processing techniques we have developed allow us to create digital collections, 3D museums and virtual exhibitions with exhibits from real museums. We recently also took part in an important European project for providing a different way of viewing exhibitions. Every exhibit is presented as part of a dramatized digital narrative, with a plot and characters that bring its era to life,” says Katsouros.

The head of CETI in Xanthi, Nestoras Tsirliganis, describes some of the technology being developed in the northeastern city for the purposes of archaeological research, such as luminescence dating. “You can define an object’s provenance by analyzing the clay it is made of and comparing that with the composition of the soil in the areas where similar objects were produced,” he says.

One of its most impressive projects has been narrowing down the date of the Santorini volcano eruption that is believed to have wiped out the Minoan civilization. “We dated samples from the deepest part of the Mediterranean – at 5,000 meters – off the coast of Pylos in the Peloponnese and put the volcanic eruption at 1613 or 1614 BC,” Tsirliganis says.

Luminescence dating, which roughly involves tracing when a material or an object was last exposed to sunlight, provides valuable insight into the past. “Analyzing the contents of various vessels, for example, teaches you a lot about dietary and social customs,” says Tsirliganis. “Other digital tools aid archaeological research by locating the position of settlements or rivers and mapping territories… Our teams were the first in Europe to upload digital reconstructions of objects and monuments on the Europeana database.”

The teams he refers to belong to CETI’s Clepsydra Cultural Heritage Digitization Center, which apart from digital reconstructions also create virtual, interactive and 3D museum tours, databases and portals for culture and education. “We copy the original so that even if it is destroyed, it has been salvaged, digitally, forever,” says the center’s head of multimedia, Giorgos Pavlidis.

“On the basis of this material, we build applications for the experts – archaeologists, museologists, anthropologists and educators – but also for tourism and creative industries seeking to innovate. Then, after the 3D printing, the circle comes to a close and we return the objects to the real world.”

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