As it is rare for Master’s students to get the chance to contribute to research, I was happy to hear about the possibility to do an internship with the team of the ERC project GRAPH-EAST, which they announced during a presentation of their work to first year students of Medieval Studies in Poitiers. I was interested to learn how an international project of this scale is managed and to discover more about medieval epigraphy, a field that I had not yet explored before coming to Poitiers for my ERASMUS studies. Thus, I got in contact with Estelle Ingrand-Varenne and my internship was scheduled for five weeks in May and June 2023. It presented an instructive end to my studies in Poitiers, before returning to my home university in Heidelberg, Germany.
My work was centred around the medieval inscriptions in the Latin alphabet on Rhodes. From 1309 onwards, Rhodes was the main base of the Knights Hospitaller Order, until the island was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in 1522. Over the two centuries of their presence, the Knights left many archaeological and epigraphic traces around the town that are still visible today. My task was to register the inscriptions in the HEURIST database of the project, based on the information that I gathered from already published works.
The first thing to do was thus to learn how to use the HEURIST database and to understand its structure. After an initiation by Manon Durier, I started to make my first entries regarding the funerary monuments of four grand masters of the Order kept in the Musée national du Moyen Âge in Paris. These objects were acquired on behalf of the museum in 1877, but their original location can be retraced by older sources and travel accounts by Western scholars. The basic interface of the database offers many fields that can be filled out, be it a list of answers to choose from or an open text field. I would try to give as much information about an inscription as I could, while also attempting a transcription and an edition of the texts according to the editorial standards of the project.
After the grand masters’ tombs, I started working on a catalogue published by Anna-Maria KASDAGLI in 2016, treating the displaced fragments of the Knights Hospitaller on Rhodes. These supports are mostly kept in storage at the local Archaeological Services; some of the more impressive objects are on display in the Archaeological Museum of the town.
Working with the catalogue allowed me to get to know the variety of medieval inscriptions. For the most part, KASDAGLI’s corpus contains funerary inscriptions and dates or names accompanying heraldic shields. But, while the same formulas are often repeated (hic iacet…), each inscription has its own particularities, be it for instance the palaeography, the language or the artistic aspect. Looking at every single inscription in the book showed me how letters and styles changed over time and helped me to better understand how KASDAGLI was able to date the fragments by comparing them to one another. And, as so often, the more one learns about a subject, the more questions one raises, leading to new insights and even further questions. Luckily, I could consult the members of the team who shared their expertise with me.
I recorded more and more inscriptions, and I could see how a network between the entries forms as the database grows: Whenever an inscription mentioned the name of an individual, I would create a profile for them and link it to the epigraphic evidence. One of the small excitements was whenever a person already existed in the database: they had already been recorded on a previous field trip of the GRAPH-EAST team, having left their mark for example in Turkey or Cyprus. With each additional inscription on a person, their biography becomes easier to grasp and further light is shed on their itinerary.
The big advantage of this cross-referencing in the database became even more evident to me when Manon showed me how to use the filter tool in HEURIST. How often do women figure in the corpus? Which inscriptions have their words separated by something other than punctuation? And how many inscriptions make use of a mix between Roman and Arabic numerals in their date? For a large corpus like that of GRAPH-EAST, it is great to have the possibility to have all the relevant inscriptions at hand in just a few clicks.
Nevertheless, there are many things to consider in using a database. When several people work with the same tool, communication is key in order to ensure that the structure of the database meets everyone’s needs and that the end result is coherent and uniform, especially if its contents are to be published. The frequent meetings of the GRAPH-EAST team served this purpose, and they also made the members of the team keep up to date with each other’s progress.
While I quickly got used to the general handling of the database, the decision of which value to attribute to an inscription turned out to be less simple in many cases. If an epigraph is fragmentary, short, or its original location unknown, the lack of context makes it difficult to decide which function it may have served.
Another challenge lay in the treatment of the actual epigraphic text. As I consulted publications of different authors, I quickly learned that people may come to different conclusions regarding the interpretation of certain letters and abbreviations. Furthermore, many authors do not follow a standardised system for their transcription, meaning that they do not give an explanation as to what the used type characters mean or whether they developed any abbreviations. Eager to make my own judgement on the matter, I thus tried to read the epigraphs from the photos that often accompanied the articles – but in many cases their quality did not allow to establish a reliable transcription, and shadows or other scratches on the surface made it difficult to interpret the letters. It is therefore vital to see the support oneself, which allows to access it from different angles and to get a better understanding of the fine engravings on the stone.
While older publications may allow the retracement of previous locations of a support, they also raise the question of whether the mentioned inscription still exists or not. After having finished with the catalogue of KASDAGLI, I worked on an article published by the Italian scholar Giuseppe GEROLA, who visited Rhodes shortly after the Italians had seized the island in 1912. Many of the inscriptions he describes do not figure in the catalogue of KASDAGLI, which could either mean that they are still in situ or that they have been destroyed. For lack of an exhaustive publication on all the epigraphs of Rhodes today, this can only be verified by talking to the local experts and examining the actual monuments in the field.
I am glad to have had the opportunity to deepen my knowledge on medieval epigraphy in such a practical manner. Not only did I learn more about the actual inscriptions; I also got to see how the epigraphists themselves work and how they handle their big corpus. Using the HEURIST database made me reflect on how I could profit from such a tool for my own projects in the future. My internship is finished, but I will definitely keep checking on how the GRAPH-EAST project advances, and I am eager to see what the team will make of the Rhodes corpus and which role it is going to play within the grand picture of their research.
Gerola, Giuseppe. “I monumenti medioevali delle tredici Sporadi.” Annuario della regia scuola archeologica di Atene e delle missioni italiane in oriente, no. 1 (1914): 169-356.
Kasdagli, Anna-Maria. Stone Carving of the Hospitaller period in Rhodes. Displaced pieces and fragments. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2016.
Cite this blog post
Linda Mosig (2023, June 16). Rhodes and the Knights Hospitaller – my internship with GRAPH-EAST. ERC GRAPH-EAST. Retrieved February 28, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/5qx