Neuroscience and Palaeography

Whilst this blog has been dormant for the last few years, work has continued. The outcomes of the fellowship that prompted me to start this research blog  are presented in the following paper:, (published in 2014).

In a nutshell, the core of this work consisted in identifying a range of strategies that experts deploy when reading and studying ancient documents. These strategies were identified through ethnographic observations of experts at work; these observations were then tentatively  related to results reported in the cognitive sciences.

Searching for further funding to continue this work, I was recently able to secure funding from the OUP Fell fund to design experiments in order to test the validity of the intuited correspondences between my ethnographic observations and findings from the cognitive sciences literature.

Here are the title and abstract of our project proposal:

Cognitive Underpinnings of Reading Handwritten Scripts: Investigating Variations for Applications in Digital Palaeography (CURHSIVA-DP) 
This interdisciplinary proof-of-concept project brings together research in Classics, in Cognitive Neuroscience, and in the Computer Sciences through the study of ancient cursive handwriting. For Classics, this research aims to understand how various expert strategies are called upon in palaeography, i.e., in the expert study of handwritten letter shapes (beyond the ability to read and understand ancient documents – e.g. papyri -, palaeographical analyses provide insights into the circulation of people, cultures, and ideas) – eventually aiming to facilitate teaching in palaeography. For the Cognitive Neurosciences, this research aims to investigate how cursive scripts are read, thereby complementing knowledge of the processes involved in reading, with the incorporation of handwriting variability (most studies on reading are conducted with printed text) – with possible applications in education. For the Computer Sciences, this research aims to derive a better understanding of which particular aspects of the reading of handwritten scripts can be delegated to computational tools – eventually to investigate ways to develop such tools -, and which are those that are best left to human experts. To that effect, we will undertake studies where participants will be presented with letters and/or words in a script unknown to them. The script of choice will be Demotic, a (mostly) alphabetic form of Ancient Egyptian. These studies will evaluate the role played by knowledge of pure shapes and of the sounds associated with these shapes in the cognitive process of reading words as a combined act of visual perception and attribution of meaning. 

This project is a collaboration between: e-Research Centre (Dr Segolene Tarte, Lead on this project), Classics (Prof Alan Bowman) & Cognitive Neuroscience (Dr Chrystalina Antoniades); we’re further grateful to  Dr Luigi Prada (Egyptology, Oxford) and Dr Rachel Mairs (Classics, Reading) for their support, and to Dr Mihaela Duta, who supports us with the design a development of the experiments (Experimental Psychology, Oxford).
This project seems the perfect opportunity to resume activity on this blog.

“Interpreting Textual Artefacts” Colloquium Programme

Following-up on the preliminary announcement, here is the full programme of the colloquium with the names of the speakers and the titles of their talks.

This event is free of charge; all welcome!                                                                             

[In order to help with numbers for catering, please email: segolene.tarte [at] to confirm attendance – Thank you]

The information below is also available for download (A5 recto-verso flyer; A3 posterA4 – programme  only, without the overview; A5 abstracts booklet – with the available abstracts of the talks).


Interpreting Textual Artefacts: Cognitive Perspectives and Digital Support for Knowledge Creation

Dates: 11th & 12th December 2012 (early afternoon 11th to tea time 12th)

Place: University of Oxford – Lecture theatre at the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles’, Oxford OX1 3LU)


The reading of textual artefacts in cuneiform studies (Assyriology), papyrology, epigraphy, palaeography, and mediaeval studies is at the core of the creation (discovery, invention) of new knowledge of past cultures and civilizations. The artefacts in themselves are devoid of meaning, and it is their interpretation and re-interpretation that contextualizes them and turns them into conveyors of knowledge.

This colloquium convenes scholars from a wide-ranging selection of fields in order to explore how knowledge is created through the act of interpretation of ancient documents. Each session puts into dialogue the work and methods, both digital and more traditional, of ancient documents scholars with findings from the cognitive sciences around the processes involved in the act of interpretation of ancient documents.

Through this event, we aim to gain a better-integrated view of the cognitive processes involved in the interpretation of ancient documents as well as some ways of supporting them and facilitating them digitally.


11th December 2012

14:00 – 14:15




14:15 – 15:45

and Visual P

Chair: Dr Dirk Obbink (Classics, Oxford)

3x20min + 30min discussion

Prof. Chris Gosden (Archaeology, Oxford)

“Beyond Art and Agency: The Sensory Impacts of Objects”

Dr Kathryn Piquette (TOPOI, FU Berlin)

“The Impact of Reflectance Transformation
Imaging on Interpretative Processes for Ancient Egyptian Graphical Culture”

Prof. Glyn Humphreys (Neuroscience, Oxford)

 “The architecture of visual object recognition and attention”

15:45 – 16:15

Tea/coffee break



16:15 – 17:15

Engagement in Reading

Chair: Dr Ségolène Tarte (e-Research Centre, Oxford)

2x20min + 20min discussion

Dr Dominique Stutzmann (Institut de Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes, Paris)

“Reading the movement: morphology, ductus, and reading skills for medieval Latin scripts”

Prof. Marieke Longcamp (Neurosciences
Cognitives, Marseille)

Contribution of Writing
Knowledge to Visual Recognition of Graphic Shapes”

17:15 – 18:30

Drinks reception




12th December 2012

10:00 – 11:00


Chair: Dr Arietta Papaconstantinou (Classics, Reading)

2x20min + 20min discussion

Prof. Alan Bowman (Classics, Oxford)

 “The grammar of legibility in Latin cursive writing”

Prof. Laurent Cohen (CHU Pitié-Salpêtrière, Paris)

“The reading brain, neuropsychology and

11:00 – 11:30

Tea/coffee break



11:30 – 12:30

e and Context

Chair: Dr John Lowe (Linguistics, Oxford)

2x20min + 20min discussion

Dr Klaus Wagensonner
(Oriental Studies, Oxford)

“Lexical texts in perspective. On the implementation of lexical information in bilingual narratives”

Dr Richard Tunney (Psychology, Nottingham)

“Implicit learning of artificial and natural languages”

12:30 – 13:30




13:30 – 15:00

and Collaboration

Chair: Prof. David de Roure (e-Research Centre, Oxford)

3x20min + 30min discussion

Dr Peter Stokes (Digital Humanities, KCL)

“Communicating Palaeography Across and Beyond the Discipline(s)”

Dr Susana Avila Garcia (e-Research Centre, Oxford)

“Exploring the use of interactive surface technologies to support image analysis researchers”

Prof. David Kirsh (Cognitive Sciences, UC San Diego)

“Interactively interpreting: solo and distributively

15:00 – 15:30

Tea/coffee break



15:30 – 16:30




This is a joint event between Oxford’s Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents and the e-Research Centre. It has been made possible thanks to funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council, through my early-career research fellowship, of which it is the closing event.



Harvests from September conferences

September has been a very busy month, where I spent most of my time at conferences:

I have to say that I started that month exhausted and was really wondering how I’d ever make it through it. It turns out it was amazingly energising, thanks to all the fruitful exchanges I had with people from a wide variety of horizons.

Here are tidbits of what I thought were interesting points that emerged throughout this dense month, dense in content and in networking :

  1. Cognition is on every lips. My approach to understanding the act of interpretation of ancient documents has become more and more involved with checking the cognitive sciences literature throughout the fellowship, and five major themes have emerged (see the preliminary announcement of the colloquium I’m convening in Dec). While discussing these themes at the Digital Humanities Congress I realised that people are not only interested in how they do things but also intrigued as to what it involves cognitively. And all of them want to do it better and, for that, they need to understand how they’re doing things now (well that is what expertise is made of , after all, cognition and metacognition!). The most frequent feedback I had on my presentations (eg this one) was: “It made me think about how I do things”. That was very gratifying, and definitely encouraging as far as the landscape of future research, beyond the fellowship, is concerned.
  2. What I’m doing is not really akin to cognitive archaeology although I can see how some confusion can arise. As I understand it, cognitive archaeology tries to unpack what was happening in the minds of people past; in contrast, what I’m doing is trying to unpack what happens in present people’s minds when they attempt to understand the past. I believe the distinction to be significant. Even if cognitive archaeology is an interesting approach, I’m not entirely sure how tractable the questions about people past asked by cognitive archeologists are. In contrast, I have a direct access to the people creating/discovering/accessing knowledge about the past. And my focus is on them – what are they doing, how are they doing it, what might help them? Yes, there is some kind of connection between the two, but it is rather tenuous, and if made, it needs to be made much further downstream from the results emerging from my research; it should relate to the content of the knowledge scholars create, rather than directly to their cognitive processes.
  3. More multi-disciplinarity is the way to go, but more “in-betweeners” are needed. And this is not just another case of putting C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures theory forward. On the contrary. It’s a rebuttal of it. We’re in a Multitude of Cultures landscape. And that was very flagrant at Dagstuhl. Each discipline, each field, each sub-field has developed their own terminologies, sometimes borrowing from each other and subverting the borrowed meanings, or just evolving the meanings in different (if sometimes divergent) ways. Take the word “feature”. In a palaeographical context, the word feature will, for example, serve to describe the remarkable characteristics of the end of stroke in a given scribal school; in image and signal processing terms, it will describe the behaviour of a curve or surface where changes occur in the (n-th order) derivatives (like a step or a ridge). There can then be some overlaps between palaeographical features and image processing features, but there are also some contexts where they definitely do not designate the some object.  And actually, even within palaeography, the word feature might signify something different depending on the kind of script that is studied. Another striking example is the word “ontology”, used in AI and in philosophy. Here again there are overlaps, but most philosophers will cringe at the AI use of the word “ontology”. These simple examples show concretely how important it is to have “in-betweeners”, peolpe who are acquainted with the various domain-specific terminologies, and who will be able to identify when such terminological issues occur and take on the role of translator so that the scholars can understand each other across domains.
  4. Asking questions vs. giving answers. Under this heading, I’m referring to styles of scholarly approaches in research. I had a real epiphany moment at Dagstuhl when I realised what was going on. At times, it felt like there were hiccoughs in the communication, but not hiccoughs that could be blamed on misaligned terminologies. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it felt like people were getting frustrated because they weren’t heard; I pondered and it eventually dawned on me. The tradition in computer sciences is to find hard questions and then to answer them. The emphasis is often put on the answering. Answers act as a deliverables; that’s what computer scientists do, answer hard questions. In the palaeagraphical world, as well as in papyrology, epigraphy, and assyriology, with which I am familiar (I can’t really talk for other subjects), the tradition and emphasis is on the questions. What is of primordial importance is to ask the right questions. They can be hard questions (and they often are), and of course answering them is important, but the research process always puts the accent on the next question. No wonder people were slowly getting frustrated, on one hand you had the “answer-ers” and on the other the “question-ers”. A dialogue were each question is met by an answer and each answer by another question might just never end! I don’t have developed any tricks on how to handle this yet, but it’s really important to be aware of it – and again, that’s the kind of situation where having an “in-betweener” can come in really useful.
  5. Presentation styles unpacked. With my background in the so-called hard sciences, I was always taught to not, ever, in a million years, read my presentations  and to always always have slides (and even in a foreign language – like for my very first academic presentation, at a German conference, when my German was shaky at best, I spent a lot of time practicing not to read – reading really was a big no-no). My incursions in the Humanities have taught me differently. It’s again a question of culture.  In the eyes of their peers, speakers in textual scholarship who read their presentations are perceived as mastering their subject, and having a definite point to make with some possibly complex arguments to put across; whereas in the image processing community (and in medical imaging and computer sciences in general), a speaker who reads is someone who is perceived by their peers as being insecure about their subject. And towards the end of Sept, after lengthy and detailed discussions with palaeographers, papyrologists, and epigraphers I discovered this: for textual scholars, presentations are built just like written articles: the slides are illustrations, the text, which is (most of the time) read, is the main text of the article, and the handouts (if any) are the footnotes. To me, what is striking about this is that it absolutely makes  sense, yet it doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the orality of the mode of communication. And this cultural diversity usually shows at Digital Humanities conferences;  some presentations are more read than others, usually depending on the traditional subject the presentation is rooted into, and some presentations are hybrids of reading and talking, showing some signs of the mutual influences of the disciplines they bring together. (I haven’t broached the question of the language the talk is given in here; that would likely yield a whole discussion on yet another type of cultural differences!) .

To be fair each one of these points would probably be worth a full post, but with deadlines looming and a colloquium to prepare, I thought I’d try to evoke these topics – in broad brushstrokes.

Have you encountered any occurrences such as those in points 3, 4, and 5? Have you developed tips and tricks to deal with them?

Preliminary announcement: colloquium “Interpreting Textual Artefacts: Cognitive Perspectives and Digital Support for Knowledge Creation”

I am currently working on putting together a colloquium, as a closing (and opening towards future research) event for my fellowship.

More details will be posted here soon, but in the mean time, here is an overview.

Interpreting Textual Artefacts: Cognitive Perspectives and Digital Support for Knowledge Creation


Date: 11th & 12th December 2012 (early afternoon 11th to tea time 12th)

Place: University of Oxford (Lecture theatre at the Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles’ Oxford OX1 3LU)


The reading of textual artefacts in cuneiform studies (Assyriology), papyrology, epigraphy, palaeography, and mediaeval studies is at the core of the creation (discovery, invention) of new knowledge of past cultures and civilizations. The artefacts in themselves are devoid of meaning, and it is their interpretation and re-interpretation that contextualizes them and turns them into conveyors of knowledge.

This colloquium aims to convene scholars from a wide-ranging selection of fields in order to explore how knowledge is created through the act of interpretation of ancient documents. Each session will put into dialogue the work and methods, both digital and more traditional, of ancient documents scholars with findings from the cognitive sciences around the processes involved in the act of interpretation of ancient documents.

Through this event, we aim to gain a better-integrated view of the cognitive processes involved in the interpretation of ancient documents as well as some ways of supporting them and facilitating them digitally. As a tangible outcome of this colloquium, the presented papers will be gathered into an edited volume.

This 1.5 day colloquium will be articulated around the five following sessions:

  • Materiality and visual perception
  • Kinaesthetic engagement in reading
  • Word identification
  • Structural knowledge and context
  • Creativity and collaboration

Do mark the dates! All welcome!


On Expertise and Expert Performance

Expert (Chambers Dictionary of Etymology)

What do expertise and expert performance have to do with this digital curation of knowledge creation project?
Well, if I can understand better what expertise is, where it comes from, and how it is constituted, I will have armed myself with a very valuable tool to identify how experts in the reading of ancient documents can be digitally supported in their task.
The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance [1] is a very informative and rich book, which gathers findings on and around expertise as studied from various points of view: from Psychology, from Artificial Intelligence, from the Cognitive Sciences. Here are the highlights of my readings, presented, of course, within the framework of my own interests, that is, my aim to develop a piece of software which experts working with inscribed artefacts (including papyrologists and ancient near-east scholars) will find useful to conduct their research.

How to define Expertise?
Naturally, expertise is defined with respect to a specific domain; experts are specialists, they excel in a given domain. Yet regardless of the domain, there are two stances to define expertise and thereby experts. The first one states that expertise is a talent; this is the absolute approach, where experts are identified as those who produce exceptional results. The other one states that expertise is characterized by a high level of proficiency; this is the relative approach, where experts are those whose achievements and experience are greater than that of novices [2]. In that scope, Hoffman [3] defined the following proficiency scale (analogical to the craftsmanship stages as established in medieval times): Continue reading On Expertise and Expert Performance

Multi- and Cross-Disciplinary Research: Getting Organized

Leaving the starting blocks

This is where it all starts. Today is officially the first day of my fellowship, and I need to get myself into gear and out of those starting blocks. I’ve done cross-disciplinary work before, but here, I’m flying solo – or almost, as I thankfully have a mentor, and an advisory board of 7 to help me steer this project in the right direction.

So. I have 9 months to build a tool that will enable to curate digitally the knowledge creation process that is the act of interpretation of ancient textual artefacts such as Roman writing tablets and cuneiform tablets. I’m not starting entirely from scratch as this project is the natural continuation of the e-Science and Ancient Documents project; however, I’ll be taking a different approach, and attacking the problem by many angles at the same time. That’s where logistics and organization come into play. I have piles of literature to go through, from books on Embodied Cognition to handbooks on Expertise and Expert Performance and on Science and Technology Studies, via articles and manuals on Argumentation Theory, Logics, and Epistemology. All very exciting indeed – if a little intimidating maybe (is that possibly why I’ve just capitalized the names of all those fields)? And I’ll have to go through them one by one. I want to.

Beyond the workplan that I have established in the grant proposal, and that dictates monthly milestones (e.g.: the first month, January 2012, is mostly dedicated to bibliography), I will be using this blog to report and react on my readings. First in the pile, and the subject of my next post, will be an account of my musings through:

The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” (2006) K. Anders Ercisson, Neil Charness, Paul J. Feltovich and Robert R. Hoffman (eds). Cambridge University Press.

Beyond Data Curation: Knowledge Curation

Exciting news came in a couple of weeks ago: the AHRC (Arts and Humanities Research Council) has awarded me a fellowship!

I mentioned this early-career fellowship application in my last post, and well, now I can present to you what I’ll be working on. It’ll be a 9 months project, starting in January and it’ll be concerned with knowledge curation in the context of the development of interpretations of ancient textual artefacts. And this blog was originally started with this very project in mind. I will remain at OeRC, and Prof. Alan Bowman will be my mentor.

Here are the official title and summary:

Digitally Curating Knowledge Creation: Understanding and Recording the Process of Interpreting Cultural and Historical Artefacts

Interpretation and re-interpretation of textual artefacts such as Roman wooden tablets (e.g. the Vindolanda tablets) and cuneiform clay tablets are a core activity for documentary scholars and historians. It is the act of interpretation of these documentary artefacts that gives them a meaning both as a text and as an object, one that can then be shared amongst academics and with the wider public, shedding light on a past history and culture. Interpretation is thus an act of knowledge creation.

Creating this knowledge is a complex and often arduous task that involves elaborate rationales that are strongly influenced by the context in which they are developed. For example, Continue reading Beyond Data Curation: Knowledge Curation

Writing and writing…

On hold
Artwork by Marc Johns (

Three months I’ve kept you on hold – even if without drab music or  compliments! It’s now high time to resume activities on this blog! It’s not that I’ve been doing nothing though, on the contrary. In those three months, I’ve been mostly writing, writing papers, writing grant proposals and replies to reviews of grant proposals. And exploring new avenues for future research.

It was that time of year again, where, as a staff member of a non teaching department at the University of Oxford, I had to start thinking again of how to maintain myself in employment – and preferably in research. Being of post-doctoral standing in a non-teaching department has both advantages and drawbacks. One advantage is that my daily tasks all revolve around research without ever being overruled by teaching and admin-related responsibilities, the main drawback however is that without teaching duties, it is much much harder to get a permanent contract at the university – and, as a matter of fact, the permanent staff in the department are either of professorial standing, or are lecturers jointly employed by the department and a teaching department, or are part of the research support team. So with the end of my contract lurking in the not so far distance (December), the main focus was on creating my next job. I had some research ideas in store, all of which are connected in one way or another to the main focus of this research blog. Continue reading Writing and writing…

On public vs private research

Back from Würzburg, where I attended the “Digital Palaeography” ESF exploratory workshop (talks and abstracts here) – and on which Dr. Dominique Stutzmann reports in his blog – I find myself pondering on issues of public vs private research. Youtie, times before the widespread adoption of digital tools, already commented on this issue in the context of papyrology. In his 1963 paper [1], he presents the internal workings of what papyrologists do. In doing so, he defines public papyrology, which consists in presenting the results of papyrological work by publishing editions of the studied texts. These editions usually offer a diplomatic transcript, a reconstruction of the text, a commentary on the presented interpretation, and sometimes a line drawing of the text, along with photographs of the text-bearing artefact. Once the edition published, further interpretation of the text is open to scholarly debate and to its use as evidence for further historical research. Upstream, the work of the papyrologist, however, is much more of a private activity, which aims to produce a transcription of the text, and is paved with what Youtie [1, p27] describes as:

“[…]the doubts, the hesitations, the numerous false starts and new beginnings; the guesses sometimes confirmed, sometimes rejected by the script;  the continual recourse to books for information of every sort – lexical, grammatical,  palaeographical, historical, legal; the interludes of exhaustion and depression[…]”

Unsurprisingly, I realized at the Digital Palaeography workshop that palaeographers seem to undergo the same type of process. In his keynote, Prof. Eef Overgaauw underlined the fact that uncertainty is ubiquitous: “No answer is final” he said, “No result is conclusive. They are all provisional.”

Not only does this chime with my current reflections on uncertainty, it also made me acknowledge that the notions of public and private research do likely extend beyond papyrology and palaeography, and that the shifting shape of uncertainty Continue reading On public vs private research

Deciphering and interpreting (proto-)cuneiform

Proto-Elamite clay tablet from Susa, in the Louvre (courtesy of Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s great to be back “in the field”! Well, it’s nothing exotic, really, as I went to Wolfson College, Oxford, to attend one of Dr Jacob Dahl‘s interpretation sessions, where the subject of study for this group of three students, Jacob and myself was a set of Proto-Elamite texts (yes, this is a wikipedia link; it has been approved by Jacob, for more info on cuneiform scripts, check here). When I say it’s not exotic, in fact, to me it is – well, not Wolfson that is, but Proto-Elamite, which I have never encountered before. So far, the interpretation sessions I’ve attended had to do with Latin cursive texts such as the Vindolanda tablets, or with Greek epigraphy; two scripts that belong to the group of segmental alphabet writing systems (as does the script I’m using to write this post). Proto-Elamite, in contrast, is thought to be a derived from the proto-cuneiform script; it is classified as logophonetic and seems to be at times pictographic and at times syllabic. Additionally – and non-negligibly – Proto-Elamite is one of those few ancient languages that Continue reading Deciphering and interpreting (proto-)cuneiform

‘Şalmu’ and the nature of digitized artefacts

Last term (Hilary term 2011) at the traditional Oxford Slade Lectures, I had the chance to hear Prof. Z. Bahrani speak about the nature of representations in the Ancient Middle-East. The title of her lecture series “The Infinite Image: Art and Ontology in Antiquity” (many thanks to Prof. A. K. Bowman who flagged them up!) resonated with some of the questions we were dealing with while working on the e-Science and Ancient Documents project. I was  not able to attend the very first lecture, but enjoyed tremendously the second one, as well as all the following ones. The second lecture, entitled: “What is/was an image?”, struck very close to home and got me thinking about mimesis and subsequently about the nature of digital images of artefacts, or more generally of digitized artefacts. Continue reading ‘Şalmu’ and the nature of digitized artefacts

From Artefact to Meaning

Initialement dans le contexte de la recherche en papyrologie et en épigraphie, mais à plus longue échéance dans le contexte d’artefacts culturels et historiques en général (textuels ou non), ce carnet de recherche vise à documenter:
• l’étude des pratiques des experts lorsqu’ils s’attèlent à la tâche de déchiffrement et d’interprétation d’un artefact.
• les méthodes adoptées afin de provoquer, d’identifier, de soutenir, et d’enregistrer les moments clefs de la découverte, de la création, de l’invention de la signification des objets étudiés et du savoir historique qui en découle. Ces méthodes auront recours à des approches issues aussi bien des sciences cognitives que de la philosophie et de la sociologie des sciences.
• l’élaboration d’un logiciel de support pour cette tâche, basé sur les résultats d’études de cas.
• l’évaluation de l’impact de l’outil informatique sur les pratiques traditionnelles, et son intégration dans le processus professionnel des chercheurs.
L’objectif ultime est de montrer que, au-delà de la curation des (méta-)données attachées à un artefact, il est essentiel d’aussi conserver les étapes intermédiaires de la création du savoir attaché à cet objet afin, le cas échéant, d’en faciliter la ré-interprétation. La contextualisation des objets est cruciale à leur interprétation, et par conséquent à leur signification, telle qu’elle est restituée dans les musées. L’aspect narratif associé à la diffusion du savoir historique et culturel consistera aussi en un des objets d’études de ce carnet de recherche.

Understanding the process of interpreting textual cultural and historical artefacts, and developing digital tools to support the act of interpretation