ATHENA: Access Tool Historical Ecology and Environmental Archeology
How did humans shape the environment and vice versa? Why did some plants and animals disappear? With growing concerns about the future of nature and the sustainable development of human societies, it is very important to study these issues in a historical perspective and from all angles.
ATHENA is a digital research platform that brings together a wide range of historical, bio-archaeological and biological sources that relate to the historical occurrence of vascular plants and vertebrates in the Netherlands. Examining the historical relationship between man and nature requires almost by definition an interdisciplinary approach. For example, a known problem in studying the (historical) influence of humans on the environment is the lack of quantitative information from before 1950 about the occurrence of plants and animals. However, studying historical newspaper articles, floras, encyclopaedias, herb books, bestiaries, archaeological excavations of bone remains and botanical macro rests, but also relevant prints and paintings, can fill this gap. Currently, such data and datasets are scattered or even lacking. Moreover, the data that is available is generally missing historical, social, cultural and ecological context. To address this situation, historians, archaeologists and ecologists have come together to share and combine data in the innovative ATHENA research platform.
ATHENA builds on the model of data hubs, creating a network of databases that provide state-of-the-art data for their own disciplinary fields of research. The data in ATHENA can be classified in different data types: textual sources, media objects (images) and (semi-) structured data, following the three leading disciplines of CLARIAH nicely. The different datasets can be accessed in a unified manner through a single data portal. However, linking and aggregating heterogeneous, but contextually related, information to create a body of knowledge on historical human-nature relationships is no small feat. To facilitate innovative forms of cross-database queries and information retrieval, the ATHENA project has made use of database technologies developed in CLARIAH. The datasets brought together in the Athena project have been imbedded in the common CLARIAH research infrastructure, by adopting the CLARIAH data formats for each of the data types.
This made it possible to expand the ATHENA network of databases with relevant data from the broader CLARIAH research network. For example, the natural history thesaurus for plants and animals has been expanded with dialect and spelling variations, synonyms and dating information, enabling much deeper queries of textual sources. Moreover, research technologies developed by the three leading CLARIAH disciplines have been applied. For example, a computational linguistics approach, in combination with the thesaurus, has been used to create a semantically enriched dataset of newspaper articles from the KB newspaper corpus. Another example is the enrichment of pictorial sources, such as paintings and prints, by making use of annotation and crowdsourcing tools developed specifically for media studies.
The ATHENA project shows, in part, the potential of the common research infrastructure developed in CLARIAH for the humanities and beyond. Applying state of the art tools has enabled to examine and (re)contextualize knowledge on historical human nature relationships from heterogeneous digital data sources. The platform provides access to information that was often limited available and not jointly investigated. Users are alerted to new and surprising sources, which in turn may lead to new research questions. ATHENA is an internationally unique research platform that will offer researchers from the humanities and natural sciences, but also policy makers, NGO’s and the broader public, a tool for exploring major questions in the field of human-nature relationships.