Photo: Michael Zellmann-Rohrer exhibits papyrus fragments at the Bancroft Library

DH Fellow Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, PhD candidate in Classics and Medieval Studies, is building a new database of Greek and Latin incantations to support his dissertation. The Digital Corpus of Texts for the Study of Magical Ritual gathers together 2,000 texts, including Greek sources from the fifth century B.C. through modern Greece, as well as Latin sources from Roman antiquity through the Middle Ages. Among the texts are spells for protection, healing, curses, and erotic power. Zellmann-Rohrer is interested in how elements of these incantations were recombined, remixed, and reshuffled across time and through different cultures.

Papyrology, Zellmann-Rohrer explained, has benefited greatly from the integration of digital tools. “You’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of texts, many formulaic in nature. It’s really useful to be able to gather them in a database for comparison.” Zellmann-Rohrer noted that many materials are widely dispersed, spread out in library collection over Europe and the Americas. Incantations appear in a variety of materials, such as manuscripts and papyrus handbooks, and gem and papyrus amulets. With the support of a collaborative research grant from Digital Humanities at Berkeley, Zellmann-Rohrer has commissioned facsimiles from archives around the world in order to expand the contents of his database. Zellmann-Rohrer has been developing the collection in consultation with Todd Hickey, Associate Professor of Classics and Director of the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, which will house the facsimiles for other UC Berkeley researchers to use once Zellman-Rohrer has transcribed their contents into his database

Zellmann-Rohrer began with a collection of research materials stored in Microsoft Word. As he began thinking about more sustainable ways to organize and share these materials, he attended a Drupal site-building workshop taught by DH Fellow Rochelle Terman at the D-Lab. After walking through the basics of configuring a Drupal site, Zellmann-Rohrer worked with DH consultant Quinn Dombrowski to sketch out the information architecture for his database. Zellmann-Rohrer explained that his initial data entry in Word produced exhaustive, but inconsistent metadata. Working with Dombrowski, Zellmann-Rohrer considered various ways develop a controlled vocabulary and merge and split metadata categories to make querying the database more useful and intuitive. The database now includes transcriptions and metadata on the date, source, and transmission of the text, and (if applicable) information about the artifact it was inscribed on.

As the project grows with Zellmann-Rohrer’s research, he hopes to incorporate Coptic and Aramaic texts he has also gathered and work collaboratively with other scholars to curate and translate texts.

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Image: Michael Zellmann-Rohrer and collaborator Todd Hickey exhibit several papyrus fragments to DH visitors at the Bancroft Library