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DH@UVA, U.Va.
Digital Humanities at the University of Virginia

Inhabiting Byzantine Athens

Inhabiting Byzantine Athens is an archaeological project that challenges traditional approaches to Byzantine urbanism and to Byzantine Athens in particular. Focusing on the area of the Athenian Agora, the project will trace architectural and functional changes in the city from the 4th c. to the 15th c. AD, so as to better understand the topography, spatial layout and living conditions of Byzantine and Frankish Athens. It seeks to reconstruct the built environment of the Byzantine city, paying particular attention to the residential areas and open/public spaces that remain largely unknown, as very few Byzantine structures besides churches have been preserved and studied.

We know very little about Byzantine Athens: traditional scholarship paints a picture of a small and insignificant town, a backwater of the Byzantine Empire that paled in comparison to its glorious ancient past. We also know very little about the people who lived there, their houses, and the daily living conditions during this period. Instead, our understanding of Byzantine cities is shaped by a top-down focus on the role of the Emperor and his court as city builders. While this supports scholars' fascination with elite-sponsored religious architecture and monumental structures, it offers little space for a much-needed study of non-elites and their role in the built environment and city-making processes. The project aims to begin countering this by exploring the lives and experiences of the city's inhabitants, studying their living conditions, habitats, and socio-economic activities.

The project relies on the archaeological data recovered by the Athenian Agora Excavations, particularly the Agora's "legacy data", i.e. its archival and printed material -- field notes, maps, photos, drawings and artifacts dating from the prehistoric to the Early Modern period -- accumulated since excavations began in 1931. The excavations, run by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA), have brought to light a large Byzantine and Frankish residential area overlaying the ancient Greek Agora and its famous monuments, as well as hundreds of Byzantine houses and thousands of Byzantine artifacts, including pottery, coins, sculptures, most of which remains understudied and unpublished. More recently ASCSA has started a colossal undertaking to digitize their archives in order to create a single integrated and coherent digital archive of all its archaeological resources that will allow greater and easier access to the legacy data and support its study and publication.

Building upon the Athenian Agora Excavations' digital initiatives, this project will employ computational methods to identify and systematically extract information from the excavation archives pertaining exclusively to the Byzantine and Frankish periods. Such methods will also allow the project to inter-relate different types of information (artifacts, maps, notes) and integrate different media (text, images, 3D reconstructions, video etc.) that will in turn   support a detailed study, visualization and interpretation of the excavation results.  Existing paper site maps, floor plans and drawings of Byzantine buildings will be updated and re-created in 2D and 3D environments to clearly display changes in spatial organization, use of space and architecture, and contribute to the reconstructing of the Byzantine settlement in the area of the Agora which is now destroyed and completely lost. The project will eventually provide access to its research results and tools on the web to enhance communication, collaboration and dissemination of knowledge across different audiences while remaining respectful to ASCSA's terms and conditions regarding their archives' use and publication.

The digital tools designed in collaboration with the specialist at IATH will provide new and effective ways to analyze and synthesize large and heterogeneous datasets that form the basis of the project's study on the relation between human behavior, spaces and objects in Byzantine cities. We also hope that the project can provide new solutions in dealing with legacy data that can be replicated and used by other archaeological projects that face similar challenges in making their archival collections more usable and accessible. Finally the tools developed during the fellowship will provide the foundation for future research on creating content for portable devices and apps that will allow visitors at the archaeological site to engage with the Athenian Agora's diachronic history and monuments in interesting and engaging ways.