Brady Kiesling in his Plaka apartment
Mapping AntiquityMoira Lavelle
“Have you played with the app yet?” asks Brady Kiesling. He sits on the balcony of his Plaka apartment, the rock of the Acropolis looming over his shoulder and an iPad in his hand. The app is ToposText. The name combines both meanings of the Greek word topos: a place on the map and a distinctive literary passage.
“ToposText is my dream of how one should be a traveler in Greece,” explains Kiesling, “That is to say, your backpack is loaded with a huge library of everything from antiquity you ought to have read, plus a few key references from more modern times, and whenever you get somewhere you will miraculously find several hours to immerse yourself in everything historical or mythological that ever happened there.”
This dream proved incredibly difficult to achieve: “I’ve stood on too many hilltops with my copy of Pausanias and you can’t find the right page, or you’ve got the wrong volume, or it’s raining or the wind is blowing, or there is some other really good reason why knowing what you are seeing is impossible in real time. But then I thought— wait a minute, technology now makes all of this easy.”
ToposText, the high-tech response to this dream, has been an evolving four-year project for Kiesling, an independent scholar at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. It began modestly, with Pausanias and a dozen other ancient texts downloaded from the web onto an e-reader: “I happily read a few e-books on the road, but realized that in fact it’s not very practical because you still can’t find anything. Opening a text and searching through it is actually easier with a paper book than it is with an e-book, it’s just you can carry more.”
Kiesling says he had an ‘aha moment’ as he was riding his bicycle thinking about his growing pile of digital texts and the Pleiades website he had just stumbled upon—a community sourced atlas of ancient places freely available online. “Suddenly you could download 20000 ancient place names all at once with their coordinates, and I thought ‘BING!!’ it should be trivially easy to mash these two sets of data together.” The result would be a searchable, readable map combined with a library of ancient texts.
It is true that that the most important works of ancient literature are available online in an English translation in the public domain and mapping technology is powerful and free. But Kiesling needed expert help, and the American School of Classical Studies had that help on hand.
Kiesling discussed his ToposText vision with Bruce Hartzler, the IT Specialist for the Agora Excavations. Over beer and politics, Hartzler wrote a series of scripts to allow Kiesling to search through what had grown to be 12 million words of ancient texts in English translation, tag the place names, highlight the ambiguities, and generate the massive index ToposText would require. Kiesling set to work tagging and cleaning up texts. He soon began working with Pavla S.A, a Greek development solutions company for websites and apps, to help figure out the user interface.
“At that point, I discovered a really nice website called Travelogues,” recalls Kiesling. Travelogues is a project sponsored by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation that has thousands of images from early travel books in the Mediterranean tagged, indexed, and freely accessible. “I discovered it when I was searching for a couple of ancient places and their site popped up on Google with a useful early map along with a small mistake.” He continues, “I sent them a little thank-you email saying ‘hey this island is mis-tagged’ and got a very nice answer back. I emailed again and told them a little bit about my project, and ultimately ended up being adopted by the Foundation.”
Today ToposText is a joint project funded by the Aikaterini Laskaridis Foundation, developed by Pavla S.A., and overseen by Kiesling. It is freely available for download in the Apple app store or on Google Play. Users can search through content by place or by text, and many places are now accompanied by pictures from the Travelogues database. Searching for “Piraeus” will give you hundreds of mentions about the ancient harbor, the classical fort, a Hellenistic settlement, the modern maritime museum, and more.
Topostext’s website describes Kiesling as “a former ancient historian/archaeologist from California who returned to scholarship after a twenty-year detour working as a diplomat for the U.S. State Department.” Kiesling studied classics as an undergraduate and was a regular member at the American School in 1979/80. After an MA in Ancient History at UC Berkeley, he joined the Foreign Service in 1983, and worked his way up to become chief of the political section at the US embassy in Athens in 2000.
The end of Kiesling’s “twenty-year detour” brought him some notoriety in the world of diplomacy and politics: “The Bush administration after 9/11 went completely off the rails in foreign policy terms,” he explains, “They led the US into a couple of really nasty adventures we’re still paying for now. […] The bureaucratics of the situation, the politics of the situation, combined such that I realized I was completely miserable, doing myself no good and my country no good. I decided to resign, and fortunately had the courage to leak my resignation letter to the New York Times.” That letter circulated widely on the Internet, and Kiesling became a mild celebrity—giving talks at colleges and universities across the U.S. He focused on specific critiques of Bush Administration policy, mostly steering clear of the protest movements that tried to embrace him.
“The result was that I ended up unemployed,” Kiesling shrugs, “Friends found me a gig at Princeton for a year doing some teaching and research. So I wrote a book about diplomacy (Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower), because that was what I knew at the moment.” Kiesling then returned to Greece and wrote a book entitled Greek Urban Warriors: Resistance and Terrorism 1967-2014: “I thought it would be an easy one-year book, but it turned out to be a five-year book.”
It was during the writing of Greek Urban Warriors that Kiesling began his first foray into processing digital texts: “I had half a million words of Greek terrorist proclamations and I needed to be able to search through them,” he says. Kiesling learned how to to take pictures of texts, OCR them, and clean them up for analysis with software friends provided. “I become aware of what technology can do if you’re willing to slurp up massive amounts of information and put the data into shape.” That experience gave him the skills to expand his corpus of ToposText materials to include important ancient texts that were still unavailable online.
As he continues to work on the project, Kiesling says the ASCSA has been an incredibly valuable resource: “The American School has an amazingly good and user-friendly library ... I always know that any work I need I’m going to find. If there’s a question that needs to be answered there’s always someone that can answer it.”
For the future, Kiesling hopes to make ToposText a resource for everyone interested in the ancient Greek world: “The goal is something that is straightforward enough, fast enough, logical and friendly enough, that anybody who picks it up will be able to find something they didn’t know before, in a way that will reveal even the remotest corners of Greece as rich and interesting.”