DALME: The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe
DALME seeks to increase our understanding of Europe’s material horizons during the later Middle Ages, an era when changing patterns of production and consumption altered the material world and transformed the relationship between people and things.
Though the sources are abundant and become increasingly so in an arc that ascends inexorably in the decades and centuries after ca. 1250, they have received little attention from scholars outside a small community of specialists. The act of finding and interpreting archival documents, which are written in difficult scripts and deploy unfamiliar words, constitutes a major hurdle. Another is associated with the fact that although Europe’s material profile may have been broadly similar, languages and dialects varied tremendously from region to region, and each of them describe material culture using distinct vocabularies. Finally, the task of linking textual objects to their counterparts in museums and archaeological repositories may seem straightforward enough. In practice, however, it turns out to be extremely complicated. What we lack are widely accepted standards for determining how and when we may legitimately correlate words with things. All of these obstacles have hampered both inter-regional comparison and serial analysis.
DALME’s principal objective is to make inventories and other lists of objects readily accessible in a manner that enables a variety of research approaches that range from the local to the inter-regional. Scholars who wish to explore the collections using methodologies that are anecdotal, descriptive, or biographical in nature can use the system to analyze whole inventories, seeking to understand life-ways and patterns of use. The system makes it easy to browse inventories for specific object types or attributes, with the goal of determining dates of first appearance, geographical or social distributions, histories of changing forms, and so on. Alongside this, the system allows for approaches that are more quantitative or statistical in nature, where textual objects and their attributes are treated as data. The DALME project generates open, well-structured, and machine-actionable datasets informed by the necessary standards and documentation. This resource makes the collections amenable to computational analysis, fosters new research, and facilitates dissemination.
In order to accomplish the project’s goals, we have developed an innovative methodology to enable the comparison of objects described in widely varying but systematic ways regardless of provenance. We call this approach a documentary archeology. It relies on data analytics and semantic tools to translate the original knowledge system used to describe an object—be it a domain ontology, such as those used by museum curators and archaeologists, or a folk taxonomy, such as would have informed medieval scribes—and translate it into a common framework to allow for the possibility of cross-domain comparisons. The DALME philosophy is grounded in the realization that whenever scholars think about things, they invariably do so through the medium of language. For this reason, the verbal descriptions of objects found in museum and archaeological databases are fundamentally similar to the verbal descriptions of objects found in inventories. We are not comparing things with words. We are comparing words with words.
The platform generated during the first stages of the project, consisting of the methods, standards, and infrastructure needed for the acquisition, transcription, and annotation of inventories, has made it possible to publish the corpus of late medieval inventories now available in our collections. These collections will continue to grow as members of the DALME team and collaborators across the U.S. and Europe continuing discovering, editing, and contributing new records. The corpus itself represents the initial raw dataset that allows us to refine the analytical tools required for the subsequent stages of the project.