Researchers from across Europe have made an extraordinary discovery about a 2000 year old Roman tablet using new technology funded by Jisc.
The wooden tablet, previously believed to describe the sale of an ox, has proved instead to show a receipt for a slave’s repayment of a cash loan to the wife of a Roman military officer – and researchers have been able to accurately date it to February 23, 29 AD.
The breakthrough came after researchers at Oxford University in the UK used medical imaging techniques to reveal more detail than ever before – as part of a project funded by Jisc and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. Professor Alan Bowman, project manager, said: “This was a huge surprise to us to discover that this kind of legal text exists in this area because the area of Friesia in the modern Netherlands was very much at the fringes of the Roman Empire. This is also a very striking demonstration of how the non-Roman populations were brought into the Roman army and the legal and social framework.
The researchers were then able to share their findings and discuss interpretations with colleagues in the Netherlands using a specially designed virtual research desktop funded by Jisc.
Jisc is planning to fund new virtual research environment projects in the autumn to expand and disseminate the results of the current work in the area.
Frederique van Till, programme manager at Jisc, said: “This project is a good example of how connecting different people and resources together can improve the quality of the research. If you get more people round the table and you get the right resources and the right context you can come up with completely different conclusions.”
Researchers working on the desktop known as a ‘virtual research environment’ can build up threads of comments and annotations, recording their workings as they move towards an agreed reading. They can also access specialist tools like dictionaries and online resources to help with deciphering the manuscript.
Professor Bowman explained that the photo imaging and virtual environment technology that the researchers used was not limited to the study of manuscripts. “The technology has great potential to allow people to link up different kinds of collections, locations and research resources in a really creative way,” he said. “In the past this was done by transporting research objects or archives, but now we can take an object, whether it’s a Ming vase or a Latin document, and see how we can illuminate its interpretation and explanation by putting it into context.”
Scholars who edit ancient documents are almost always dealing with damaged or degraded texts. Ideally, they require access to the originals, or the best possible facsimiles of the originals, in order to decipher and verify readings, and also to a wide range of scholarly aids and reference works which are essential for interpretation of their texts.
So virtual research environments are beginning to change the way that people work in this area, improving not just access to the resources, but also allowing academics to track the research process and speed it up.