The Red Sea Is Arabian, Erythraean, …

Place Name Clustering in Pleiades and TAVO

Since September of last year, I have been working with Eric Kansa on the Gazetteer of the Ancient Near East project of the Alexandria Archive Institute (with NEH funding). Our goal is to export the cornucopia of information contained in the index of the Tübinger Atlas des Vorderen Orients (TAVO)(Tübingen Atlas of the Near and Middle East) into Pleiades, a Community-Built Gazetteer and Graph of Ancient Places. While digitizing, proofreading, systematizing and entering the name, coordinates, map and language facts into a database, we ran into some practical obstacles. With the help of Tom Elliott and Sean Gillies (New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World), a lot of the obstacles were cleared but some defy an easy solution. That is where an editor comes in.

Place names can have many variants due to not only chronological (e.g., Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul) or cultural/linguistic reasons (e.g., Genève, Genf, Ginevra and Geneva) but also due to differences in the exact place or area covered. The Red Sea, a long and narrow body of water between Africa and Arabia, has been an important trade route since ancient times. Consequently, it is mentioned in texts from many different periods and cultures. At times, parts of the Red Sea were named separately, e.g., the Gulf of Aqaba between the Sinai peninsula and Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf of Suez between the major part of Egypt and the Sinai peninsula

In the two figures at the end of this article (click to enlarge), the relationships between the various Red-Sea-related toponyms are sketched both for the TAVO Index and Pleiades. In the TAVO diagrams, the arrows indicate referrals while in the Pleiades diagrams, they explain which (combination of) place name(s) serve(s) as the main entry (“Place”) and which are the toponyms associated with said main entry (“Names”). In other words, TAVO emphasizes relationships, mutual or not, while Pleiades organizes its information along the lines of one concept (“Place”) and usually-multiple labels (“Names”). The distinction between the whole and its parts is not always maintained, e.g., TAVO’s Rotes Meer (Red Sea) refers to Baḥr al-Qulzum (Gulf of Suez; named after a town at the northern end). The same name can cover different areas, e.g., Pleiades’ Erythr(ae)m Mare is both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf… and even a “large section of the Indian Ocean, including the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.”

The confusing connections between place names ultimately reflect the extent/lack of accurate knowledge of the textual sources as well as the changing economic and political lenses through which the Red Sea region was viewed. The sea was variously seen as far-off, almost mythical, to important and oft-navigated. In a way, the place names accrete together in clusters which are unstable and can change composition depending on the time period and which observer is viewing them. With a nod to physics, we encounter an observer effect: “the act of observation will make [changes] on the phenomenon being observed. This is often the result of instruments that, by necessity, alter the state of what they measure in some manner.” After all, our measuring instrument is the human brain which is nurtured and to an extent determined by its social and cultural environment.

[click to enlarge]

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