Far away, so close (@timeshighereducation)

Ongoing research can now be shared face-to-face in full digital detail across the globe. Paul Jump reports

Roman slaves may have lived a dog’s life, but surely few can have suffered being mistaken for an ox. This, however, was the posthumous fate that befell Carus of Frisia.

In the early years of the 20th century, the remains of a Roman tablet were found near the village of Tolsum in the Netherlands. The original translation, published in 1917, had it that the tablet was the contract for the sale of an ox. “But it mostly didn’t make sense and even the original editor said he thought he hadn’t read it all correctly,” said Alan Bowman, director of the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents (CSAD) at the University of Oxford.

The solution, years later, was to combine Professor Bowman’s existing eSAD project, which uses sophisticated medical imaging to help decipher damaged or illegible documents, with a bespoke “virtual research environment” (VRE) developed by the Joint Information Systems Committee, the UK academy’s IT development body, to allow researchers from across the world to work on the images.

“Effectively, the VRE is Skype, but on it you can have face-to-face conversations, point to images of the object and manipulate and annotate it as you go along,” Professor Bowman explained. It also provides online access to dictionaries and reference books, and allows searches for information across differently distributed data sets, images and texts.

“It is like having a seminar but with someone several hundred miles away,” he said.

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