[CfA:] Digital Heraldry: Digitisation and Dissemination of the European Heraldic Heritage

Linked Open Data cloud (http://lod-cloud.net/)

Linked Open Data cloud (http://lod-cloud.net/)

Heraldry is a historical phenomenon that is unique to Europe, and therefore heraldry constitutes a crucial part of a mutual European cultural identity. From Scandinavia to Cyprus, from Portugal to Romania, throughout France, Germany, Poland, Italy—after its emergence in the twelfth century, heraldry had soon spread across almost the entire continent. Coats of arms were to be found in manuscripts, on walls and ceilings, in stained glass and panel paintings, on seals and coins as well as on objects of all kind. More than any other cultural achievement, coats of arms have the capacity to link objects, places and families into a network connecting the various parts of Europe, and to simultaneously reveal perspectives in medieval and early modern culture, mentalities, and uses of communication that have been hitherto largely overlooked. Coats of arms thus have an enormous potential for understanding European history and the formation of our European culture.

Heraldry is a crucial part of the daily work of libraries, archives, and museums, in fact everyone involved in the preservation of cultural heritage. At the same time, it is a subject with an intrinsic potential for interdisciplinary research, including history, art history, archaeology, philology and linguistics, numismatics, sphragistics, etc. However, the complexity of heraldry and its language, the sheer amount of evidences as well as the largely outdated tools have made it difficult to access so far. The geographical fragmentation of sources across various regional and national institutions mean that it has been next to impossible to reveal the ‘bigger picture’ of a single coat of arms’ material context.

Our cross-disciplinary project, so far consisting of historians from the University of Münster and computer scientists from the University of Leipzig, sets out to change this. We are convinced that the Digital Humanities will enable us to overcome those obstacles and give us the means for a rapprochement of heraldry on a totally new level. Relying on Ontology Engineering and Linked Open Data technology, our project aims to enable anyone to conveniently identify and study coats of arms without the previous heraldic knowledge. By incorporating already available online data from cultural heritage institutions all over Europe, our project will furthermore offer the possibility to locate any coat of arms in its material contexts and to reveal hitherto unknown links between different cultural objects and areas, opening up the subject for new tracks for research.

In this effort, the project aims to tackle these specific tasks:

  1. Develop an ontological structure to transpose heraldic descriptions into machine-readable data and thus make heraldic knowledge and evidence searchable on a conceptual level. This is not limited to digital blazoning but includes full reproductions of coats of arms in a digital environment. An accessible user interface will enable users to encode and decode coats of arms without specific knowledge of the heraldic terminology (blazon).
  2.  Develop image recognition software to identify, disambiguate and interlink coats of arms in images of cultural heritage semi-automatically.
  3.  Develop Natural Language Processing (NLP) tools to identify, disambiguate and interlink blazons in textual resources of cultural heritage.
  4.  Publish the acquired data as Linked Open Data, creating unique identifiers for all coats of arms, which will allow to refer and interlink references or depictions in a variety of different material contexts, and thus helps to connect different online databases of cultural heritage preservation. This will also establish new links between the various references to any coat of arms (armiger, date, etc.) and the metadata of the different sources.
  5.  Customize a data browsing tool that allows visualisation of the existing references to a coat of arms in time and space, in order to see where and when particular coats of arms, or series of coats of arms, appeared for the first time and spread throughout the material heritage of Europe. This will make visible and accessible the relations they provide for academic research.
  6.  Follow an open-access strategy and include a citizen science component in order to put to use the heraldic interest and expertise outside of academia and enlarge existing data wherever possible by means of crowdsourcing.

At the core of this project is an existing database of blazoned coats of arms compiled by Steen Clemmensen, which already features more than 83,000 blazoned coats of arms. We intend to link this data to other digital collections of cultural heritage (manuscripts, objects, paintings, seals, etc.), as well as integrate the data from the existing printed collections. Since in the past coats of arms were used synonymously to names, we will add an important identifier to the already existing Linked Open Data structure of Europe’s digital cultural heritage and history.

In order to bring this project to life, we are looking for:

  • partners (e.g. in the computer sciences) working on image recognition and annotation,
  • partners (e.g. archives, museums, editorial and database projects) willing to provide cultural heritage data and implement enrichment and interlinking solutions into their existing databases,
  • libraries (e.g. libraries, museums, archives) to provide data and persistent identifiers of persons and institutions, extending the options for analysing their own data.

We aim to establish a European research network between institutions from all over Europe, and intend to apply for funding from the European Union and similar large-scale funding bodies. Ideas and expressions of interest and intent are highly welcome. We look forward to hearing from you!

Contact: hiltmann@uni-muenster.de.

Cite the article as: Torsten Hiltmann, "[CfA:] Digital Heraldry: Digitisation and Dissemination of the European Heraldic Heritage", in: Heraldica nova. Medieval Heraldry in social and cultural-historical perspectives (blog on Hypotheses.org), published: 31/05/2015, Internet: https://heraldica.hypotheses.org/3289.

Torsten Hiltmann

Torsten Hiltmann is Juniorprofessor for the High and Late Middle Ages and Auxiliary Sciences at the University of Münster. He is interested in new approaches to late medieval and early modern heraldry, the medieval notion of kingship and the methods and technologies of Digital Humanities. On hypotheses.org, he is maintaining, among others, the blog “Heraldica Nova”.

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