DH Fellow Eduardo Escobar, a PhD candidate in Near Eastern Studies, has turned to network analysis to study semantic and social networks in the history of science. In network analysis, a graph’s nodes (e.g. people, places, words) and their connecting edges (kinship, trade routes, synonyms) are visualized, with the goal of providing scholars with new insights. Last summer, intensive training courses and collaborating with Berkeley Prosopography Services (BPS) laid the groundwork for him to visualize semantic networks in his own research.Sample semantic network graph

At the Digital Humanities Summer Institute (DHSI) at the University of Victoria, Escobar attended “Data, Math, Visualization, and Interpretation of Networks: An Introduction”, taught by Scott Weingart, Digital Humanities Specialist at Carnegie Mellon University. Though Escobar received a solid foundation in network analysis and theory, he advises other graduate students to follow up and continue taking workshops and training during the semester. “You start rethinking the basics [as you begin applying tools to your own project],” Escobar shared.

Throughout the summer, Escobar collaborated with his advisor, DH Fellow Laurie Pearce, Lecturer in Near Eastern Studies and co-director of BPS, to combine their research interests in one network graph of intellectuals in Hellenistic Uruk (ancient Iraq, 4th-3rd centuries BCE). Whereas Pearce investigates these individuals in legal contexts, Escobar is interested in their work as astronomers. Though prosopographical work is performed in a variety of fields, the problem of constructing biographies is particularly prominent when studying ancient societies, due to the relative scarcity of available texts. While these biographies may be incomplete, they are enriched by understanding the contexts in which these figures move about: what kinds of texts did they write? In what records do they appear? Who writes about them? Who were they holding transactions or contracts with? Escobar’s research on Babylonian astronomers is enhanced by understanding how they also participated in society as legal scholars, authors of literary works, and owners of land. By combining legacy data sets that often separate social and economic history from the intellectual history of the sciences, Pearce and Eduardo hope to create a more complete picture of elite families in ancient Uruk.

At the inaugural Digital Humanities at Berkeley Summer Institute (DHBSI), Escobar and Pearce received fellowships to investigate these challenges as a team. At “Data Workflows and Network Analysis”, taught by Chris Church (Assistant Professor of History at the University of Nevada, Reno and one of the founders of UC Berkeley’s DH Working Group), Escobar and Pearce explored OpenRefine, a tool for pre-processing and cleaning data, and Gephi, an open source tool for network analysis. After working with an example network graph of attendees’ research interests, Escobar began investigating semantic networks in cuneiform recipe texts.

Escobar explained that many Akkadian words appearing in technical texts remain undefined by scholars. Escobar’s corpus consists of cuneiform recipes composed between the second and first millennium BCE. While some recipes describe technical processes for activities like making colored glasses that imitate precious stones, manufacturing perfumed oils, and dyeing wool in exotic colors, they may be indistinguishable from recipes containing magical or imaginary ingredients. To better understand these undefined words and how they function, Escobar plans to visualize a semantic network in Gephi. Escobar will investigate these unknowns words by graphing their common substitutions, as well as verbs, nouns, and modifiers applied to them. Escobar plans to present his work at the Digital Humanities Faire poster session on Wednesday, April 13th.

More resources: