Digital Tools Supporting Prosopographical Research in Texts and Manuscripts

Prosopographical research makes it possible to elicit narratives of individual lives and social communities from evidence—personal names, relationships, roles, as well as other metadata—preserved in textual documentation of all genres and periods. In the humanities and social sciences, prosopographers were early to recognize the potential of computers to simplify and support data storage and analysis, and were enthusiastic adopters of digital tools and methodologies. The stand-alone architecture of many early digital projects resulted in repositories of project-specific data presented in and accessible only through proprietary software and/or interfaces. Contributing to increased development and acceptance of digital tools in humanities research has been the implementation of best practices including, but not limited to the use of open source code, reusability of tools, extensibility of tools and methods across disciplines and data sets, and interoperability facilitated through web services. Berkeley Prosopography Services (BPS) is a digital toolkit that facilitates and supports prosopographical research, including the disambiguation of namesakes and the generation of social network visualizations. Although BPS originated in support for research in a corpus of cuneiform legal documents of the Hellenistic period, its corpus agnostic architecture supports investigation of the names and individuals in text corpora regardless of their time periods, languages, content, or media. It applies heuristics familiar to the humanities researcher, including the application of probabilistic reasoning in the disambiguation of namesakes and the positing and exploration of “what if” scenarios that invite the formation of new research agendas. This paper outlines the conceptual framework of BPS and will demonstrate the functionality of BPS and its potential to support prosopographical research in papyrology, drawing on text subsets from the Center for the Tebtunis Papyri, and will suggest its applicability to research in Biblical, Early Jewish, and Christian Studies.