In an article from the Digital Humanities Quarterly Tom Elliot and Sean Gilles imagine an elegant mapping system reminiscent of Borges.

The vision takes place in 2017 when the unnamed protagonist—a classical studies professor—uses an integrated computing system to view and interact with a map of the ancient world.

Now I see a new overlay of colored symbols associated with my current work: various research projects, two articles I’m peer-reviewing and various other bits of analysis, coding, writing and reading. These fade slowly to gray, but for two. Both of them are sprawling, irregular splatters and clumps of dots, lines and polygonal shapes.

The view pivots and zooms to frame these two symbol groups the pink batch indicates the footprint of one of the review pieces, a survey article comparing Greek, Roman and Arabic land and sea itineraries. The other group, in pale blue, corresponds to my own never-ending “Roman boundary disputes” project. In both cases, I’ve previously tailored the display to map findspots of all texts and documents cited or included, as well as all places named in notes or cited modern texts and ancient sources. These two sets of symbols remain highlighted because potentially relevant information has recently appeared.

The scenario sounds pleasing enough. Lord knows it is needed. Knowing where places were located in antiquity can be quite a problem. Yes, we know that the gods lived on Mount Olympus, but the question is which Mount Olympus? It turns out that, today, the entire region North of the Mediterranean is littered with all kinds of features bearing that name.

Pleiades is a website trying to change all that. It was developed by Gilles and Elliot and is currently in beta testing. The site allows scholars, cartographers, archaeologists, and students to view, contribute, and locate features from past civilizations like Rome and Greece. Its peer-review process relies on sources contributed by its online community. People can submit by adding KML files and/or citations that mention or confirm the location of a place. After submissions have been approved, they become visible to other members of the community.

The project began as an extension of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, which was published in 2000. Therefore, a majority of locations that I looked up listed Barrington as its only confirming source. Since I am neither an expert in classical studies, cartography, or archaeology, I lack the confidence to submit. Perhaps, one of the seven sisters could drop by and guide me through the process…

Overall, the site seems like it should be useful. But when I searched for places mentioned by Sappho, all I got were squares that indicated the map in Barrington Atlas where the feature was mapped. I thought that if I were logged into the website, I would have better luck. I sent an email to administrators requesting access. Then I waited for them to get back to me. It was actually Tom Elliot that granted me a login ID six days and two emails later.

This indicates to me that the Pleiades project is sorely understaffed (probably underfunded), and is a project of passion for those who keep it alive. When I finally logged in, my place searches yielded the same open field boxes. I tried out some of the features available to users such as the “workspaces,” which allows you to create your own collection of places. I tried to collect “Places Mentioned by Sappho,” but the unfamiliar back-end style interface were… Well, they were like Greek to me.

Ultimately, Pleiades did prove to be a useful tool for me. It got me started thinking about where Sappho lived. It gave me an understanding of the cosmopolitan nature of Ancient Greece. Using the map references that Pleiades provided, I quickly flipped through the Barrington Atlas at Bobst Library, and found enough places to create a prototype map that charts the geographical constellation of Sappho’s world.

Now I have a much better idea of what’s going on giving me a much clearer image of Fragment 35 “you either Kypros or Paphos or Panormos” (trans. by Anne Carson). Additionally, I experienced a moment of monumental success when I searched for “Phokaia,” a place that Sappho mentions it in Fragment 101:

she sent from Phokaia
valuable gifts

(trans. by Anne Carson)

Although it is called “Phokaia” in Carson’s translation, the original papyrus fragment has this place written on it:


At some point this series of letters was translated to “Phocaea” as well as “Phokaia.” For some reason, the former, “Phocaea,” became more popular than the latter. I, however, didn’t know this. So when I typed “Phokaia” into the Pleiades search engine, I could have easily missed the entry for “Phocaea.” But because another user cited a book about “Phokaia” in the entry about “Phocaea” the Pleiades portal was able to direct me to my proper destination. Hurray!

(By the way, Phokaia, Phocaea, or Φωϰάαϛ is located just across the water from Lesbos in Modern-day Turkey)