Deep-mapping the Asklepieion of Pergamon

The current project focuses on the Asklepieion of Pergamon, and mapping the manifold stories through its sacred space. The Asklepieion is perhaps the richest of the three case studies in variety of data, and provides a good way to explore the different possibilities of creating a deep-map.


Deep-mapping can take a variety of forms, but if you really want to apply spatial analyses then a good start is with GIS – despite the drawbacks, misleading representations, or even methodological hypocrisy of using a metrical tool to analyze phenomenological perceptions. Nonetheless, GIS has the capacity to act as a reservoir for a wide variety of data.

Assimilating data in GIS

In deep-mapping the Asklepieion of Pergamon, the focus is on how narratives interact with space but also each other, to produce several layers of meaning. This means collecting a variety of spatial data, starting with the topography of the site, but also the inscriptions, and the relevant data in Hieroi Logoi of Aelius Aristides (see next section). This approach, focused on spatial narratives, complements the current archaeological and geophysical fieldwork now being conducted in the area, directed by Ulrich Mania in the context of the DAI Project ‘Transformation of the Pergamon Micro-region’. See also Pirson, F. et al. (2021). Pergamon – Das neue Forschungsprogramm und die Arbeiten in der Kampagne 2019. Archäologischer Anzeiger, 2020/2, 1-245.

With the help of Pim Schievink and Alexandra Katevaini, I began collecting data pertaining to the Asklepieion of Pergamon. Sources are principally the Altertümer von Pergamon XI. Vols 1-5 (1968-2011) Ziegehaus, de Luca, Hoffmann) from the 1958-1969 excavations.

Facilities for reproducing the large plans from the AvP for use in GIS were pretty limited in 2020, but the Geodienst was nonetheless able to georeference the scans, creases and all, to indicate the location of the different structures.

Georeferenced plan of the Asklepieion, showing the outlines of the plan (derived from AvP XI) of the site superimposed over a satellite image

The next step is collecting the data in spreadsheets – I started with the inscriptions from the Asklepieion (compiled by Pim Schievink, from Altertümer von Pergamon VIII. Teil 3 (Habicht 1969)) and the relevant textual passages in Aelius Aristides’ Hieroi Logoi – with these I am also looking beyond the Asklepieion for spatial references.

These are then transformed to shapefiles, or layers of information that are imported into a GIS environment – here we use ESRI ArcGIS. The points from Aelius Aristides were converted by the Geodienst team, while Alexandra Katevaini connected the inscriptions to polygons defined based on the map.

This process is described in more detail, with examples, in a story map, created with ArcGIS online: Deep-mapping the Asklepieion of Pergamon

We recently presented this at the Hieron Spring 2021 workshop ‘Asking About Asklepios’ (06.05.2021), a Brown Bag session of the Groningen Ancient History Research Collective (19.05.2021) and the Athens Greek Religion Seminar at Swedish Institute at Athens (25.05.2021) – see News and Events.

A shout out to all those who provided comments and suggestions! Your feedback will help move this project forward in significant ways!

Place-making in absentia?

Usually crammed with bicycles and students hanging out or darting across to the library, the Academieplein in the Broerstraat in front of the signature-building of the University of Groningen has never looked so barren as it does now – not even in summer. Although I will admit to enjoying the quiet, it is at the same time a depressing sight. But is it the vacancy, or the building itself, that seems out of place?

Academieplein, Groningen – Wednesday 15 April, 2020, 10:00 am

What is it about a place that gives meaning to a crowd or public gathering? The current modus operandi for non-essentials such as myself of working-at-home (or ‘shelter-in-place’) provides a unique chance to observe the impact of physical interaction and group dynamics through their absence, as we shift our social spheres to virtual reality.

Ancient History Research Collective in Groningen – holding its first online brown-bag meeting

Of course, we do everything we can under the circumstances to stay connected, and might even have more contact hours than under regular working conditions. What we do have at least is a new perspective of each other in our domestic habitats, and our own self-created places at home. Yet the move of meetings to online formats also demonstrates what we lose when we are no longer within each others’ breathing spaces. The knock on the door, the informal quip in passing, the short chats at the coffee machines, the rolled eyes, all of which are simple mechanisms of building ties. Even the basic impossibility of making true eye-contact (rather than staring at your webcam, or staring at a screen of someone staring at their webcam, or looking down because they are staring at you) means we miss out on so many subtle forms of communication.

Eye contact can generate the kind of mutual connection that is so vital to human interaction (Schilbach 2015). In his volume on rational rituals, Michael Suk-Young Chwe (2001) considers this to be essential to coordinate action, instantaneously generating common knowledge through the reciprocal sense of ‘I know that you know that I know that you know that …’. Spaces of ‘inward-facing circles’, e.g. theaters, stadia, facilitate this mutual gazing. But there is more to human contact than the gaze. What would Erving Goffman have to say, with his ‘interaction rituals’ (1967), or Randall Collins, who developed this into ‘interaction ritual chains’ (2004), have to say about our new disembodied world? These theories, among others, stress the importance of presence as we physically respond, even subliminally mimic, each other’s social behavior in ritual (i.e. habitual or customary) settings.

So what happens to our rituals when they are ‘out of place’? Physical religious gatherings these days are taboo, how does that change the rituals? We know that ritual is affected and (partly) determined by their spaces, but we also know of the impact of ritual on space, the deep recurring patterns of habit and memory etched into the surfaces of cathedrals, but also market squares, supermarkets, and even the steps of the Academie Building in Groningen. So the larger question is, what happens to our places when they are ‘out of ritual’? We perform ‘place-making’ processes by making them part of our lives, whether consciously, e.g. ‘my office’, ‘my church’, ‘my city’, or subconsciously, e.g. by taking the same route, parking your bike or your car in ‘your spot’, internalizing certain landmarks, however accidental. We mark these places through the rhythm of the day and they become part of our lives. How will this change once we are released back into them?

Some literature

  • Chwe, M.S.-Y. (2001) Rational ritual. Culture, coordination, and common knowledge, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Collins, R. (2004) Interaction ritual chains, Princeton Studies in Cultural Sociology, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Goffman, E. (1967) Interaction ritual. Essays on face-to-face behavior, New York: Doubleday.
  • Schilbach, L. (2015) ‘Eye to eye, face to face and brain to brain: novel approaches to study the behavioral dynamics and neural mechanisms of social interactions’, Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences 3, 130-135.

Support grant from the Geodienst

I am thrilled to announce that this project has been selected as a winner for the highly competitive Spatial Data Call put out by the Geodienst from the University of Groningen. Their expertise in working with geographical data will give this project a significant boost and the support will be used in a pilot project:

Aelius Aristides – spatial narratives of the Asklepieion in Pergamon

Aelius Aristides, was a famous rhetorician and presumed hypochondriac in the second century AD who frequented the healing shrine of Asklepios near Pergamon, writing about his adventures in his Hieroi Logoi (The Sacred Tales). His work uniquely provides insights into the ‘total experience’ of a sanctuary, its rituals and divine encounters, and it includes several spatial references to places concerning the Asklepieion as well. The Hieroi Logoi is an invaluable source for positioning the sanctuary in its physical and social context. A challenge will be to geo-reference literary sources within a larger GIS environment, and so this pilot will also serve that purpose through a selection of relevant passages.

The Asklepieion near Pergamon (photo: CGW 2019)

After this pilot, other data sets pertaining to the Asklepieion will be integrated: architecture, inscriptions including multivocal testimonies of healing (dedications of gratitude) and even ‘graffiti’ where possible. The sanctuary is moreover a large repository of honorific and dedicatory inscriptions, some of which once held statues, and texts of cures from a variety of individuals.

Taken together, the Asklepieion provides a remarkable assemblage of sources rich in multi-vocal data across time, which this ‘deep map’ hopes to unlock. Stay tuned!