- The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe (DALME)
The Documentary Archaeology of Late Medieval Europe (DALME) project is a large, international, online research collaboration published by the Department of History at Harvard University. The project grew out of a partnership launched in 2013 that has evolved into a promising digital humanities enterprise. In its current iteration, DALME incorporates the work of more than two dozen scholars from France, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada. These experts span disciplines including archaeology, art history, history, data management, and literary studies. The administrative team responsible for DALME is comprised of Daniel Lord Smail (Harvard), Gabriel H. Pizzorno (Harvard), Laura K. Morreale (Georgetown), and a robust group of doctoral students from Harvard and Stanford. DALME's advisory board includes world leaders in medieval social and cultural history.
At its core, DALME is the digital manifestation of a research project that explores the comparative history of material culture. Scholars affiliated with DALME upload scans of primary documents and transcribe relevant excerpts or entire texts. They then catalogue key words from those documents that point to material objects. In so doing, they create a machine-actionable data set that cross-indexes objects across time and space and links materiality to vocabulary. End users of DALME may search for any physical object noted in the collected records to understand better the relationship of a past world and its objects to the texts that describe them.
Most of the collected resources are lists of household objects or state inventories, but the growing database also draws on auction records, lists of stolen goods, dowries, financial records, testaments, and more. At present, the records include those produced by both Christian and Jewish communities, and the bulk are from the northern Mediterranean (though the project is continuously expanding to other geographic regions of Europe). Users of DALME can search for single objects or analyze entire digitized collections of lost artifacts.
DALME is the modern digital articulation of an established scholarly tradition. Beginning in the nineteenth century, historians, archaeologists, and philologists became fascinated with lists of things, and [End Page 221]that interest accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s with the onset of the cultural turn. Whereas, in its origins, the study of lists looked to understand issues such as living conditions, economies, and consumption, recent scholarship focuses more on the anthropology of things and on cognitive archaeology.
The technology underlying DALME combines a number of thirdparty and custom-built applications. Quite rightly, wherever possible, the project leadership has opted for open source solutions, increasingly the standard scholarly outputs in the digital humanities. DALME's front-facing interface is a custom-built website, constructed in Django REST Framework for the API and with Wagtail for the content management system (CMS). Through the website, users access content stored in a custom-built digital asset management system, which archives the images and other digital records compiled by project contributors. A DALME knowledge base, meanwhile, built in Wiki.js, serves as the digital repository for storing, organizing, and sharing information on the project's evolving methodologies and working processes.
DALME offers an important and promising tool for the study of material culture and consumption, one that will continue to grow as it incorporates new content and as its designers refine their objectives. To test its efficacy, I ran searches on twenty everyday objects listed in records similar to, but not yet contained within, the DALME database. The search terms I included were for mundane objects named in Latin and Provençal records, such as the term for a robe ( rauba), a knife ( cultellus), a comforter ( vanoa), a candle ( candela), wheat ( anona), and wine ( vina). In almost every case, the database produced clear digital images of original records and accompanying transcriptions of documents containing these words. The search interface is not, currently, the most intuitive, but scholars accustomed to working with historical records will easily figure out how best to maximize its efficacy. For example, it fast became apparent that DALME could not adjust automatically for word endings in a declensional language such as Latin (that is, a...