Introducing SigiDoc

Some history

SigiDoc represents the extension of the digital approach, already applied to inscriptions, coins, and papyri, to Byzantine seals. In the early years, the main aim was to store and analyse data; but in 2006, at the time of the Byzantine Congress in London, a group of sigillographers met to consider the possible next step, a way of publishing seals, using XML markup, which could incorporate the functions of a database. Talks continued in 2010 and 2011 at King's College London, Dumbarton Oaks, and during the Byzantine Congress held in Sofia (a record of some of those previous discussions is still available in a Wiki, which, however, has not been updated since 2011). The intention was to build on the markup protocols which had been created for inscriptions (EpiDoc) which were then developed for papyri (Papyri.info), and later modified for the publication of coins (Nomisma). Professor Charlotte Roueché and her colleagues were using EpiDoc for inscriptions, and she and Professor Jean-Claude Cheynet attempted to get funding to extend the work to seals; but this was only successful in 2015, in the framework of a Marie Curie fellowship at King's College London (Digiseal), where Dr Alessio Sopracasa worked under the supervision of Prof. Roueché and Dr. Gabriel Bodard, one of the main architects of EpiDoc, and SigiDoc entered in a second - and very different - phase of its development.

More recently, notably thanks to the interest showed by Prof. Claudia Sode (Cologne University), a small but determined team has been created around Dr Sopracasa, including, besides Prof. Sode, Dr Vivien Prigent (from the CNRS) and Martina Filosa (from Cologne University), and with the technical assistance of several digital humanists.

SigiDoc went public for the first time in May 2019: it was presented to the international community of Byzantine sigillographers during the 12th International Symposium of Byzantine Sigillography held at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.

SigiDoc's genealogy

SigiDoc is largely based on the experience of EpiDoc, the set of recommendations for epigraphic material, and on solutions such as Nomisma, adopted for the digital edition of coins, since coins are the physical objects most similar to seals. EpiDoc gave to SigiDoc experience and solutions for the description and the analysis of seals' legends and metadata (physical description, history, dating, etc.), but this body of experience has been adapted, selected, and enhanced in order to make it suitable for SigiDoc, which builds on the experience already gained in other fields to develop a set of tools specifically designed for sigillographers.

SigiDoc's genealogy
1.1. Origins and (possible) spreading of SigiDoc.

In the last few years, EFES (EpiDoc Front-End Services), a customisable platform for the online publication of ancient texts in EpiDoc, has been developed. SigiDoc has become one of the projects using and testing EFES and, in this way, contributing to its development: at present SigiDoc is the only non-epigraphic project working with EFES. Thanks to this platform it is possible to get immediately a raw version of the future web page (without the elegant webdesign): for non expert users, it can be very frustrating to work on XML without having an idea of the final output. Besides that, EFES provides two other crucial features, the creation of dynamic indices and a search interface.

With SigiDoc sigillographers have at their disposal a standard for the digital edition of seals, that is, seals directly edited in a digital environment, which can then be published either online or on paper. This should therefore facilitate the creation of corpora: of course, a single huge corpus of potentially all Byzantine seals is imaginable, and SigiDoc might offer the possibility to create it, with time, people, and money. But the use of SigiDoc as a common and shared tool will allow the creation of several collections or corpora large or small: this means that anyone will be able to conceive and manage their own project, in a totally independent way, with the advantage that all the projects based on SigiDoc will be virtually unified by the use of this standard, because their content could be searchable through a common search interface. In addition, SigiDoc is by nature multilingual: the use of English as one of the languages of the corpus is of course recommended, but not compulsory.

From the seal to the webpage

Sharing and spreading sigillographic knowledge

As stated above, SigiDoc is using EpiDoc through EFES. This underlies the organisation of the information and its appearance, but the digital translation of all the sigillographic criteria used in a scholarly edition of a seal is the most original part of SigiDoc. The information displayed on the final webpage, easily readable by anyone, comes from all the XML files in a corpus - files written according to the XML language; since the beginning of the project, the main task has been making choices about how to deploy XML terminology in the edition of seals, and how to extract from it the most valuable information, in order to get the best visualisation and organisation of the data; SigiDoc offers a set of guidelines which have emerged from that work.

SigiDoc from seals to webpage
1.2. Creation of a SigiDoc page.

Several conventional signs and symbols are in use in order to allow a detailed description of the legend: for example, the type of lacuna, of a gap in the legend, does it concern characters or whole lines? Are the lines/characters completely lost or something is still visible but illegible? Is the extent of this lacuna known, unknown or approximately established (in terms of number of lines or number of characters)? And has the legend been restored with certainty, tentatively, or by comparison with parallels? And so on... Each one of this possibilities involves the use of different conventional signs in the editorial interpretation, corresponding to different XML tags.

The first task of a SigiDoc user is still the scientific analysis of the seals: the sigillographic skills are irreplaceable when preparing an edition of unpublished material, and strongly recommended when converting a paper edition into a digital one.

Once a traditional edition is ready, the data should be transferred and stored into the XML files: those files are roughly organised in order to group the data of the same nature (see here image 1.2), thus facilitating their input in the SigiDoc template. SigiDoc users will be able to make a choice among its many fields, but it is recommended to proceed in a collaborative way in order to ensure consistency among different SigiDoc corpora. What is striking is that the digital edition pushes editors to precision, accuracy, and consistency sometimes even to a higher degree than for paper editions, simply because they have to instruct the machine on what to do in very precise and unequivocal terms. The digital editor has at their disposal a set of markup recommendations enabling them to encode all the necessary metadata (about the seal as an object, its history, etc.), the legend, the apparatus criticus, the bibliography, the commentary with the related footnotes; consistency in markup will enable the program to populate the indices and support the search process.

When all the XML files are ready, they may be transferred inside a SigiDoc-customised version of EFES, in an appropriate directory: a preview of the webpage is then displayed. This is the last step which takes place locally, on the editor's machine: the 'digital manuscript' is ready, awaiting publication after finding a host server.

Anyone will be able to produce new editions when new data appear (e.g., parallels newly edited) or some information change (e.g., new dating or reading). Basically, all the data contained in the SigiDoc files will be easily updated, not only locally, on a single computer, but on the website displaying the edition; it will also be easier to follow the seals sold through auctions. As matter of fact, SigiDoc gives the chance to update the information without any delay, thus promoting its circulation and its scientific study, making this material quickly available to anyone. The condition is ensuring the record of changes by keeping track of the different versions of the editions.

What should happen next

The journey has been long, but now SigiDoc exists: as explained above, it is not - as too many people have mistakenly believed - a mere database, but a tool, and its successful development has been possible also because, since 2015, a different approach has been adopted, favouring work carried out by a very small number of people instead of seeking from the beginning a consensus that could not be found during the discussions that took place up to 2011.

SigiDoc is now available for Byzantine sigillographers to deploy: it offers a basic infrastructure, components, and documentation, as well as some examples of how it works. Now that there is something 'tangible', sigillographers can examine and discuss it, to express agreement but, more importantly, to highlight what should be changed and improved. SigiDoc is being designed to serve as a shared tool and not as the expression of the habits of a single person or a small group of people. That is why the project now needs the input of as many sigillographers as possible: only active contribution will allow SigiDoc to develop and to last over time, thus securing a digital future for the discipline and its knowledge.

Responsibility for this page

SigiDoc version: 1.0