Reconsidering the Roman workshop: Applying machine learning to the study of inscribing texts

Reconsidering the Roman workshop: Applying machine learning to the study of inscribing texts
7 August 2020, 5.30pm - 7.00pm

Charlotte Tupman, Exeter

This event will be held online at

This paper describes the first stage of a work-in-progress collaboration between ancient historians and computer scientists which uses machine learning to analyse the planning processes involved in creating Latin inscriptions. It will discuss the findings of a pilot project funded by an Institute for Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Research Award at the University of Exeter, led by Dr. Charlotte Tupman, Dr. Jacq Christmas and Dr. Dmitry Kangin.
Inscriptions in the Roman world covered a vast number of subjects, monument types, geographical areas and periods.

There were several stages in their planning: the preparation of the surface, drafting of the layout of the text, sometimes the filling in of letters with brush strokes, and finally the cutting itself. Some of these processes are better understood than others. Were Roman craftsmen working to specific planning ‘modules’ which could be scaled up or down? To what extent did the stonecutter influence the design after drafting? Are there patterns that we can observe by time period, place or other factors?

This paper examines whether our understanding of lettercutting processes in the Roman world can be enhanced through combining traditional epigraphic techniques and machine learning. The pilot project applies a neural network to a dataset of images made available by the Epigraphische Datenbank Heidelberg. We investigate whether the model can learn effectively to identify the layouts of inscriptions on a Roman empire-wide scale, focusing on size, shape, spacing, and positioning. We present the results and implications of the first stage of the project, in which we train the model to recognise text within images of varying quality, and discuss the next steps in furthering our knowledge of Roman craftsmanship.


Valerie James
020 7862 8716