Archive for March 2010

“Off with their heads!”

15 March 2010

Some of you may have spotted a news item on the BBC website about a recent find in Weymouth, Dorset. Fifty-one decapitated skeletons were found in a burial pit and an analysis of their teeth has now revealed the remains to be those of Scandinavian Vikings. According to the news item, archaeologists from Oxford believe the men were probably executed by local Anglo-Saxons in front of an audience sometime between AD 910 and AD 1030.

Of course, we don’t yet know the circumstances surrounding this execution – it could simply have been a raiding party gone wrong. However, there are some other intriguing possibilities, which are of interest to this project. For instance, in 1002 King Aethelred II ordered the killing of all the Danes who were living in England.  Historians are divided over whether this statement applied to those Danes that had settled during the course of the tenth century or whether it referred to those Scandinavians that were living in England as part of an agreement, such as that anticipated in the lawcode known as II Aethelred where the Viking leaders were expected to remain in England, being provisioned with all that they could want and need in return for dealing with any threats to the English people, presumably other Viking armies. Such agreements were commonly used by kings, but not always successfully.

The laws from the reigns of Aethelred (978-1016) and Cnut (1016-1035) are littered with references to the importance of loyalty and trustworthiness, and there are also some indications of what might happen to a person who had proved to be untrustworthy. For instance, an oath breaker could lose his hand for swearing falsely on a relic. Could Aethelred’s order of the killing of all the unfaithful Scandinavians in England refer to what might happen to those Viking bands that had broken their agreements with the king? If so, it is just possible that the evidence of the punishment being meted out is found with the decapitated skeletons in Dorset. Certainly, the theory that they were killed in front of an audience might indicate that it was an act of deterrence.

Wild speculations apart, I look forward to hearing more about this intriguing find in the future. However, if you’d like to add your voice to the debate or merely want to read the original news story, it can be found on http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/dorset/8563377.stm

Collaborative editing of texts online

7 March 2010

The collaborative editing of texts is central to the Early English Laws project. The complexity of the texts means that they are often best served by a team of editors taking an interdisciplinary approach. In addition to historians and language specialists, palaeographers, anthropologists, sociolinguists and lawyers all have an important perspective to bring to the task. And these researchers may well not be based in the same country, or even on the same continent.

The team at the Centre for Computing in the Humanities (CCH) is developing a bespoke system to allow this collaborative editing to occur online, but last Wednesday Jenny and I had the chance to look at a service being developed in Germany, TextGrid (http://www.textgrid.de/en.html). Dr Stuart Dunn at the Centre for e-Research, King’s College London, is working on a JISC-funded ‘use case’ project, TEXTvre, which aims to foreground the needs and practice of researchers in the development of e-infrastructure (see http://www.kcl.ac.uk/iss/cerch/projects/portfolio/textvre.html for more information). The project is focusing on TextGrid, and the developing TextGridLab toolkit, which is still in its beta version. Stuart has been talking to the teams responsible for a number of digital editing projects, including EEL.

The potential offered by TextGrid and other virtual research environments or collaborative editing platforms of this type is immediately obvious, but whatever the possibilities, ease of use will be crucial to their adoption by historians and other scholars in the humanities. I’ve been involved in a number of projects where the tools that are supposed to make project management and research easier end up becoming an obstacle to clear communication, usually because one or more members of the team opts out completely on the grounds of difficulty. The TextGrid interface was familiar and intuitive, presenting complicated options and functionality in a way which would not scare a researcher who has only previously used MS Word. Roles were easy to assign (editor, author, etc.) and both text and images straightforward to upload. The ability to link from the text of an edition to a specific point on a manuscript image simply by drawing a box around it (automatically capturing that link in the underlying XML) will be of enormous value to projects such as ours which seek to connect images, editions, commentary and translation.

There were multiple options for interacting with the text of our test edition, from the traditional XML view, to a view which hid all of the XML encoding, to a very easy to navigate hybrid which offered an excellent insight into XML for researchers new to digital editing. Of course, there were any number of new features that we would like to see, including clear differentiation between the contributions of different editors and a highlighter tool, but that’s precisely what the TEXTvre project is about. We very much look forward to Stuart’s report, and will add a link from this blog post when it’s available.