Final Report to the NEH for Online Coins of the Roman Empire

It is appropriate that Day of Archaeology should fall on the deadline for our final report for the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded Online Coins of the Roman Empire (OCRE) project. The first edition of OCRE launched in late 2012 and received funding from the NEH in spring 2014. Over the last five years, the project has grown tremendously. All coin types from Augustus to Zeno (representing five centuries of Roman imperial numismatics) have been published, and we have now incorporated more than 107,000 physical coins related to these coin types from 21 different datasets. These datasets originate from large collections like our own or that of Berlin or the British Museum, but also include coins from smaller civic or university museums such Museu Arqueològic de Llíria (Spain) or the Fralin Museum at the University of Virginia, as well as from finds or archaeological databases such as the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the Domuztepe excavations published through OpenContext.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time discussing OCRE and its technical underpinnings, as there’s already a lot of content online about it. Our recent American Numismatic Society magazine article, “Wishes Granted: The ANS and the NEH,” is a good primer about this and other Open Access/Open Data projects we’ve been working on. However, I would like to post a few relevant snippets from our final report. Note that this report will be turned into a white paper soon and openly published to everyone on the NEH website.

Within the United States, most states were represented in April. Web traffic typically corresponds to state population. Traffic is distributed through the country, in both urban and rural areas, though it is clear that the largest concentration of OCRE users can be tied to major universities: The University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, University of Georgia in Athens, University of Texas at Austin, Stony Brook, etc., resulting in dozens of sessions in April distributed between 5 and 25 individual users, probably indicating that OCRE is being used at these universities for undergraduate or graduate instruction. In April, 15 users created 47 sessions in Arden Hills, Minnesota, a small city of 10,000 and home to Bethel University and Seminary. Heavy usage of OCRE has occurred in the surrounding towns of Bethel University.

Global distribution of OCRE users

However, it is equally clear that use of OCRE extend significantly beyond traditional ‘academic’ communities. The collecting of Roman coins is a hobby that transcends class, gender and occupation. Thus, beyond major cities and definitive college towns, a random sampling of the 454 American municipalities shows: several unique visitors from Meridian, Idaho, five visitors who averaged 30 minutes/session (22 pages) from Wenatchee, a city of 30,000 in Washington, a repeat visitor from the small town of Ruston, Louisiana, who averaged more than 20 minutes per session. The heaviest user in April was an individual from Roseville, Minnesota, who averaged 64 pages/session for three sessions.

Americans are routinely the heaviest users of OCRE, followed by those in the U.K. and Germany. What may be more surprising is that Poland and the Ukraine are typically in the top ten for any given month. When OCRE launched, it was only available in English, but both the user interface and the numismatic concepts have been translated into 16 additional languages. Our Polish and Ukrainian colleagues, Adam Degler and Kirill Myzgin, respectively, graciously volunteered to provide translations several years ago. Therefore, Polish and Ukrainian Google searches will yield relevant searches for Roman imperial numismatics. Furthermore, we know that our colleagues excavating in both Poland and the Ukraine are using OCRE as a reference tool to identify their coins in the field, which is a successful demonstration of one the use cases we provided in our application. Of the top 25 nations represented in April, only the languages of Serbia, Croatia, and Lithuania are not natively provided in OCRE.

I think that one of the negative perceptions of NEH funding within the United States is that it goes toward elitist academic vanity projects that have little public footprint. OCRE demonstrates that this is not true. Traffic originates throughout the world, especially from nations where we have been able to provide translations. Eastern European scholars often do not have access to the expensive journals and monographs that Western European and North American university libraries are able to purchase or subscribe to, and OCRE breaks down financial barriers to the access of numismatic information. The use of OCRE as a tool for archaeologists to identify coins in the field was a potential use case that we outlined in our NEH grant application, and I personally am pleased to see it come to fruition. Furthermore, we see that OCRE is used as a teaching tool to introduce undergraduates to Roman numismatics:

The long-term impact on both the Society and the broader field of numismatics has been substantial. As indicated by demographic analysis earlier in this report, it is clear that OCRE is being used as a teaching tool for undergraduate instruction. We have collected several examples of OCRE’s use in both classical studies and information science curricula. Sarah Bond, a professor of Classics at the University of Iowa, used OCRE as an introductory tool for Roman numismatics (an illustration of coinage as official imperial messagery) in an undergraduate course about ancient financial crisis. Clare Rowan, in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Warwick (UK), routinely uses OCRE in two capacities: to introduce undergraduate students to Roman numismatics and to train finds specialists to identify Roman coins and enter data into the Portable Antiquities Scheme as part of the UK’s Money and Medals Network. Since the publication of OCRE, Prof. Rowan has “noticed that students are much more willing to engage with numismatic material (having all the images, and a search function means it is much more accessible than the RIC), and have increased confidence – they can now easily cite and label coins in their essays using OCRE information as a model.”

On another front, Marcia Zeng, a professor in the School of Information at Kent State University, has used OCRE in her classes of Cultural Heritage Informatics, and has introduced it in Knowledge Organization Systems/Structures/Services. In addition to the Kent State University iSchool, Prof. Zeng has demonstrated it in lectures at Taiwan National University, Academia Sinica, and various locations in China. A Chinese-language PowerPoint presentation entitled “Linked Data and Open Data, a hands-on experience” has been attached in the appendix to this report. Prof. Zeng and Xia Lin (Drexel University iSchool) presented this in 2015 at the 12th Advanced Digital Library Seminar & Lib 2.15 Forum, Xiamen, China. Slides 23-33 illustrate various visualizations in OCRE and the underlying SPARQL queries within that allow for geographic or quantitative distribution for Roman coins.

The study of coins has long been seen as an esoteric sub-discipline within history and archaeology, but the introduction of numismatics through intuitive user interfaces online serves as a bridge in exposing what is typically viewed as highly specialized information to a more general audience of archaeologists and classicists.  This will, hopefully, introduce numismatics into the mainstream, and scholars will be more confident in the integration of coinage as standard source of historic evidence into their research processes.