IASIL 2016 – Digital Ireland: Transforming the medieval past

On Tuesday 26th July, we presented the World-Tree Project at The International Association for the Study of Irish Literatures‘ conference here at University College Cork. Roderick Dale from the World-Tree Project presented a paper, and Tom Birkett chaired the session which the World-Tree Project sponsored.

Whole panel

First up was Dr Orla Murphy who gave a fascinating paper on ‘Contextualising Knowledge and Making Meaning – Representation and Remediation of Ireland’. The slides for this paper are available online, should you wish to check them out. The paper covered issues of how the academy is not fully digitally native yet, and advocated taking control so that it can be shaped to suit our needs. As part of this approach, Dr Murphy highlighted several projects that are doing this, all of which are mentioned in her project presentation, including DARIAH, for which she is the Irish National Coordinator. She concluded with a call to adopt a dynamic approach to digital humanities, one that moves beyond mere digitisation to take control and embed the literacy needed to make digital humanities especially effective.

Dr Roderick Dale introduced the IRC-funded World-Tree Project in ‘Collecting Ireland’s Viking Heritage with the World-Tree Project’. He explained how it might be used to improve access to knowledge about the Vikings in Ireland, and what challenges face the digital medievalist. He discussed how digital projects might access invisible communities, those that are not online or might not normally consider participating in initiatives like this, by engaging with local libraries and other points of contact within local communities. These contacts can serve to raise awareness and benefit through feedback from the project. He also stressed the need for community collection initiatives like The World-Tree Project to collaborate with those that contribute, and work together with local groups so that all can benefit. The emphasis was on a lateral approach to engaging with communities outside academia, rather than a top-down or bottom-up one.

Patricia O’Connor presented on ‘Researching Medieval Culture in Ireland’s Digital Age’. O’Connor discussed the issues of engaging with the marginalia for the modern reader, using Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 41 as an example. This manuscript has a large number of Old English and Latin marginalia that modern reading practice makes more difficult to access. Patricia discussed accessing the marginalia with specific reference to a Latin Hymn of St. Sechnall at the bottom of the margin on p. 207. This fragment has been much ignored because of its proximity to three cattle-theft charms in the same bottom margin, a problem that was exacerbated by the transfer of the manuscript to print with the marginalia in a separate volume from the main text. The discussion then turned to how this text might appear in a digital edition, and considered the options for increasing the visibility of marginalia such as this through a considered approach to encoding. O’Connor concluded that the debates around encoding are serving to challenge preconceptions about marginalised texts which can serve to raise their visibility.

The panel was a fascinating insight into different areas of the digital, medieval world with each of the papers and much discussion afterwards.


Guest Blog: Light in the Dark Ages

There have been many attempts at reconstructing Viking-age houses and halls of varying types and sizes, and a variety of construction techniques. All of these have a few things in common, but most notably they are pretty dark spaces. At night time and during feasts and banquets, light was presumably provided by fires, lamps, and possibly candles. These provide a surprising amount of light, but are quite a contrast to brighter modern electric lighting. In this environment, some of the material culture we associate with higher status ‘Vikings’ takes on a very different light; literally!

01-Belts and armrings by lamp light
Belt fittings, seax sheath fittings, armrings, and pendants shining by the light of Viking-Age oil lamps

I have been involved in making reproduction items for many years, but unlike many experimental archaeologists, one of my primary interests in recreation is in aesthetics; particularly trying to understand what appearance or effect these people were trying to create. From this perspective, the environments in which the items were used and seen become key, especially as most modern scholars and enthusiasts are more familiar with these objects in daylight, but I have always been most fascinated by how they behave at night.

02-Objects by candlelight
The beads, oval brooches, and belt buckle really catch the candle light, as do the glass vessels and tin-foil decoration of the Tating ware pottery

All these higher status objects of the Viking-age, be they glass beads and vessels, copper-alloy knife sheaths, belt fittings, and brooches, silver and gold jewellery, metal drinking horn fittings or inlaid sword hilts, have one common feature; they catch the scant light present and reflect it back out. This is also true of other objects like the copper-alloy and tinned fittings on small chests and boxes, tin-foil on Tating ware pottery, or silver wire used as brocade on tablet weaving, and for embroidery and posaments on clothing. In these dark spaces, with the flickering yellow hue of living flames, these objects make their wearers very visible people, and create a sharp visual distinction between those with, and those without.

03-Gaming by Firelight
Mother and son playing hnefatafl by fire and candle light, with the beads and brooches shining

This starts to give a real sense of what impression these people were trying to create. In a world of earth tones, natural materials, and often in the dark, they hankered for brightness, colour, and light. The visual effect this created when added to the intoxicating, and probably intoxicated, environment of smells, tastes, verses, stories, and music is captivating!

Adam Parsons

Adam has worked as a professional archaeologist for the last 14 years, and has been involved in numerous publications, including co-authoring Shadows in the Sand: Excavation of a Viking-age cemetery at Cumwhitton, Cumbria. He has been a living history enthusiast, and experimental archaeologist for 18 years. For more information and examples of the reproductions I make visit www.blueaxereproductions.com

Launch of the Public Call!


And we’re off…

After a period of testing, tweaking and enlisting feedback from some fantastic contributors, today saw the official launch of the World-Tree Project collection website.

As well as getting an excellent response on social media, we have had some good coverage in the press.

Hugh Linehan interviews Tom in the Irish Times, in an article that understands the challenges of crowdsourcing the medieval past as well as what we are trying to achieve. There is some focus on metal detectorists – and we should make clear that we’ll be working with metal detectorists within official frameworks (such as the PAS scheme in the UK) and are very much opposed to nighthawking or illegal detecting in Ireland. One important thing the article talks about is the differences in cultural responses to the Viking past across Europe: just what does the word ‘Viking’ mean for different communities and interest groups?

There is also a write-up in today’s Irish Examiner, written by Sean O’Riordan, which explains the impact of the Project and why the time is ripe for a collection on the Vikings. The article uses one of the pictures taken in a photo shoot earlier in the week. We had great fun taking this pictures with the Medieval & Renaissance society at UCC.

Dr Roderick Dale (Researcher) and Dr Tom Birkett (Principal Inve
Dr Roderick Dale (Researcher) and Dr Tom Birkett (Principal Investigator) from the World-Tree Project, pictured with Elena Coderoni and Shane Broderick from UCC’s Medieval & Renaissance Society.

We also have a piece in the Irish World – a newspaper aimed at the Irish Community in the UK – which we hope will spread the word even further!

There’s a list of ‘Ten Things You Didn’t Know about the Vikings’ in the Irish Sun today, which is a bit of fun, but also hopefully helps to dispel a few popular misconceptions about the Norse peoples. And yes, the word ‘Viking’ is used very broadly indeed in this article!

One myth that simply won’t go away!

Finally, there’s some great coverage on the UCC Homepage, and on our own Twitter and Facebook pages.

Next stop: the Midland’s Viking Symposium in Nottingham tomorrow!



Report from ‘Digital Britain’

Easter weekend was a promising date for a conference on the theme of renewal (or at least reconsideration) of the field of medieval literature. Hosted by Harvard University’s English Department and exploring new approaches to the early Middle Ages, ‘Digital Britain’ provided a perfect opportunity for the World-Tree Project to report on our method of community collection, and to enlist the advice of some of the leading proponents of digital medievalism.

Untitledconf The conference ran over two days and packed in 23 papers and reports, which can’t all be mentioned here (the schedule is available on the project website and the storify here). The presentations covered everything from computational approaches to place-name studies to reflections on the theory and practice of editing in a digital environment, via calls for collaborative forms of peer-review and the use of digital tools in the teaching of medieval literature. The plenaries were delivered by Prof. Timothy Stinson, who gave lots of practical advice about digital editions arising from his work on The Siege of Jerusalem Electronic Archive, and reminded us that mouvance is not a concept that would have been recognised by the medieval scribe working with the manuscript in front of them. The second plenary, Prof. Martin Foys, delivered a lecture on ‘Formal Materialism in Early Medieval Media’, using the intriguing case study of an Old English translation of a redaction of Amalarius of Metz’s Retractatio and its attempted erasure by Matthew Parker in the sixteenth-century to explore concepts of the material in the Anglo-Saxon scriptorium and our ability to reconstruct this in the digital age.

In our own panel on ‘Data and Databases’ we were in the esteemed company of the Bosworth and Toller Online Dictionary, and the RuneS Project – which will soon be the primary corpus edition for study of the older futhark runic inscriptions. Jenny Robins’ presentation included a replica runic inscription to transcribe, which gave us something tangible to hold on to during this discussion of data!


The Data and Databases Panel at the ‘Digital Britain’ Conference, Harvard

Our own presentation was focused on the challenges involved in our approach to international crowdsourcing of material on the Vikings. The talk outlined the project and set it in the context of some recent community collection initiatives in the field of cultural heritage (with reference made to the splendid Woruldhord Project run by Dr Stuart Lee at OUCS, which has provided an excellent model and methodology to build on). The paper then discussed challenges under four headings: managing quality, using multiple languages, engaging with hidden communities, and curating unknown items.

The section on managing quality (dealing with the knotty issue of how to deal with misinformation and the limited potential for crowdsourcing to produce ‘academically credible knowledge’ (Hedges and Dunn) was the challenge taken up most readily by our fellow attendees in the Q&A session. The successes and failures of the Wikipedia model of peer review and policing of quality was discussed, and a useful distinction made between gate-keeping at the point of collection, and interpretation and quality control in curation. We stressed the need for any community collection database to include an option for community curation, and discussed the possibility of mobilising participants to help correct factual errors, provide feedback and advocate for quality of submissions. It was also pointed out that it is possible to get too hung up on quality and accuracy in metadata, when this is the task of the moderators to correct – the value might be thought of as the engagement with shared heritage rather than the quality of individual items. The issue of racist agendas was also raised (inevitably), which is something we will refuse to tolerate in any of the submissions made public on the website. Finally, the question of legacy and longevity was raised. The specter of ambitious projects which quickly became obsolete hangs over any new online archive, and we have to take every step to ensure that this archive is inter-operable and extensible. Our use of the open-source platform Omeka and use of Dublin Core standards is just the first step in ensuring that the World-Tree Project is a lasting resource.

All in all, this was a fascinating conference which gave us a great deal to think about in the run-up to the call for contributions, and we are very grateful to Erica Weaver, Joey McMullen, and Sam Berstler for organising the conference, and to the Irish Research Council for facilitating the World-Tree Project’s participation.



Call for Testers!

We’ve been tweaking the World-Tree collection website over the last few weeks, trying to create a platform that’s as straightforward and user-friendly as possible.

But before we launch into full-scale collection mode, we are looking for some kind individuals to test the website at www.worldtreeproject.org – either by adding an item or two, or by browsing the site and giving us your feedback.

At the moment, we have a restricted range of items on the site – a few dozen items, a growing collection of material migrated from the Orkney Project website, and some sample exhibits demonstrating on a small scale what we hope to be able to do with the much broader range of materials we collect from individuals, institutions and organisations.


A sample exhibit on ‘Vikings in the 21st-Century’

If you’d be willing to act as a tester for the website, please contact us at worldtreeproject@ucc.ie, or just jump right in and have a go at playing with the site.

We’re looking for feedback on the following:

  1. How easy is it to contribute an item? Did you encounter any difficulties?
  2. What was your experience of navigating around the site? Could we make it clearer?
  3. What works well on the website? What does not work?
  4. What features would help you to use the site in the way that you want to?
  5. Is there a resource you would really like to see us develop on the site? If so – let us know!

We’d be extremely grateful for your help!

Tom and Roderick


What’s that world-tree? Unidentified images

We are currently testing the collection module at www.worldtreeproject.org, and have not yet put out a public call for contributions to the digital archive (though keep an eye out for the call soon!)

But we’ve already come across several images that we are unable to identify or locate. One of them is pictured here:


It clearly depicts an image of the World-Tree as depicted in the Poetic Edda and elaborated on by Snorri. We can see the four harts feeding on Yggdrasill, the  Norns spinning out fates at the bottom of the image, and the squirrel Ratatosr delivering messages from the serpent Níðhöggr and the hawk perched on an eagle in the upper branches of the tree.

Beyond this, we know very little about the image, including what form the original takes (textile or painting?), where it is located, when the original was produced, and who took the image.

Whilst the majority of the items that we collect on the project will be identifiable (and correctly identified by contributors), we are certainly going to be presented with items such as this which are unknown to the researchers on the project, raising the question of how to find out the information and to catalogue these images.

We are hoping that we can also draw on the wisdom of the crowd to help us to identify most of these “John Does” and assign them their correct place. For this reason, we will be putting out a call on Twitter and Facebook every time we come across something unusual. We’ll also be keeping an exhibit of unknown items on the website – so pop in now and again to see if there’s anything that you can identify… or just to revel in the weird and wonderful items that come in to the project.

And if you can help us to identify this particular image, we’ll ensure your name is immortalised in skaldic verse.*

*Or a mention on the homepage, at the very least…

Designing the World-Tree Logo

The logo for the World-Tree Project (used here and on our collection website www.worldtreeproject.org) features a tree whose roots and branches interlock to form a complete sphere. The graphic designer who produced the logo for us – Anne-Kathrin Schoerner – had a brief to produce a logo that was unique; that expressed the project aims; and that gestured towards the artwork of the period represented by the project.

Representing Yggdrasill (or the World-Tree) is by no means an easy feat. One of the earliest images of the tree (dating to the Viking Age itself) is the central image on the tapestries discovered at Överhogdal church in the early twentieth century (and long believed to be medieval productions). This image formed the basis of the trademarked logo used by Överhogdal parish.


Another well-known image of the World-Tree appears in the late seventeenth-century Icelandic manuscript, AM 738 4to, at fol. 43r. This image is probably based on Snorri’s account of Yggdrasill in his Prose Edda, and incorporates several details: including some of the inhabitants of the World-Tree, including the serpent Níðhöggr, who gnaws at the roots of the tree.63cedaa2118419dad40ccf73c5362fd7

In more recent times, Yggdrasill has been represented in a myriad of different ways, from the naturalistic (as an ordinary tree above a well) to the schematic. Finnur Magnússon’s illustration in his Eddalæren og dens Oprindelse was one of the first of countless attempts to reconcile the World-Tree with the details of the Norse cosmos: a schema that doesn’t lend itself to visual representation. Pictured alongside it is another recent attempt (by Wolfgang Werner) to bring together the imagery surrounding Yggdrasill in somewhat bewildering detail.


We wanted to do something very different with the World-Tree logo – to get back to the simpler design of something like the tree on the Överhogdal tapestry, but one that also made reference to the intricacy of the World-Tree as a concept. For this reason, the designer avoided a completely symmetrical logo, opting instead for meandering branches and complex interlace that brings to mind Viking-Age artwork. The idea of the World-Tree is not suggested by size or by extraneous detail, but by the fact that the roots and branches join together to form a complete circle. The logo is simple enough to be identifiable at a distance, but also suggests the complexity of the world encompassed by Yggdrasill.


We think that the logo is an excellent representation of what we hope to achieve through this project: to connect the many branches of engagement with the vikings into a single living archive. Let us know what you think!

Welcome to the World-Tree Project!

This is the first blog post from the World-Tree Project, which (in case we didn’t catch you on our Facebook or Twitter feeds) is a new community collection project in the field of Old Norse-Icelandic and Viking Studies, funded by an Irish Research Council ‘New Horizons’ Grant. Our aim over the 12 months of the project is to create an interactive digital archive for the teaching and study of the subject, which is both generated by and open to the public to use.

Community collection has proven to be a very effective tool in cultural heritage projects – some of the initiatives we’re following very closely include Europeana 1914-1918Transcribe Bentham, and 1001 Stories Denmark, – and we’re very thankful that we can draw on these well documented initiatives in our foray into crowdsourcing Norse heritage. Though it demands a different approach, community collection has also been applied successfully to the early medieval period, most notably by Stuart Lee with his fantastic Woruldhord Project, an initiative of OUCS which collected together resources on the Anglo-Saxons and is still developing as a ‘living’ archive with over 4000 items contributed by members of the public, museums and libraries, academics, teachers, and societies.

Even with such steady shoulders to stand on, the prospect of creating the first community sourced archive on the Vikings is more than a little daunting. There are, of course, many, many different communities with an interest in the Viking Age, from local heritage groups and re-enactors, to institutions, civic bodies, and scholars, and even the term “Viking” means something slightly different in each of these contexts. The impact of Norse culture (or cultures) was not confined to Scandinavia, and there are communities across Europe with a stake in this shared heritage – often interpreting the past from quite different perspectives ranging from the scholarly to the casual; sometimes with a national or political inflection. Resources on the Viking Age (and there are some excellent resources out there) are presented in multiple languages, and some of the most interesting events and initiatives are happening at a local level and essentially invisible outside the community. Added to this is the extremely diffuse nature of collections of Viking artefacts, and the sheer geographical range of Viking sites – from the Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland to runic graffiti in the Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. We are not dealing with one public, but with many, and with a subject that is profoundly interdisciplinary and (to make the first of many tree-related references) branching out in all directions.


So why enter into this tangle? Well, firstly, the benefits of linking up even a portion of the material that is out there far outweigh the difficulties of sourcing, contextualising and translating these sources. It will allow us to create useful connections and resources for teaching and learning, to remove some of the barriers to access, and hopefully open up a dialogue between academia and community level interest in the Viking Age. Secondly, the interdisciplinary nature of ONVS (Old Norse and Viking Studies) and the diffuse nature of the material in many ways lends itself to community collection – exploiting the potential of wide public interest in the period to generate a geographically wide-ranging and comprehensive archive. Thirdly, as mentioned earlier, we have the successes (and failures – more about this in a later post!) of previous projects on which to build, as well as a tested model through which to engage in targeted community collection (again, more on this later!) We have all the great functionality of the open-source content management system Omeka to exploit, and the national infrastructure for the preservation, curation and dissemination of cultural heritage through the Digital Repository of Ireland. Perhaps as importantly, we have a wonderful platform for academic collaboration in ONVS on which to build (including the recent collaborative doctoral training initiatives of the Orkney Project and Languages, Myths and Finds Project), and the expertise of the recently appointed postdoctoral researcher, Dr Ruarigh Dale, on which to draw.

Of course, there are certainly some unknowns and obstacles to overcome – and one of the goals of the project is to test whether the model for targeted community collection via personal networks and interaction works at an international level, and to gauge the most effective ways to collect, translate and exhibit resources on the Viking Age for different end-users. We also want to learn about whether it is possible to map the field (in terms of engagement with the Vikings) through community collection, and to understand the role that collaboration between universities and the expertise of the community might play in future research initiatives.

To ensure that our findings are useful to others working with (or considering working with) community collection or digitising cultural heritage, we’ll be writing regular blog posts not just about how archive is progressing, but also about the practicalities of the project, from setting up the web application to managing our Dublin Core.

Do follow us if this is something you are interested in (professionally or casually!) – there’ll be lots of opportunities to get involved.

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