The PHI Epigraphy Project

By David W. Packard

Around 1967, when I was still a graduate student, I made a concordance of the Gortynian Law Code. The format resembled my Livy Concordance with Greek letters and all diacritical marks. I was thrilled when Cal Watkins admired the design of the Greek letters.

The TLG was founded in 1972 at Irvine, with the ambitious goal of creating a database of all Greek literature. The project elected not to include inscriptions (or papyri) because of their complexity. I resolved that I would take on the challenge of filling this gap. When I developed my Ibycus computer system, I took special care to include some basic features (such as acrophonic numbers) to support epigraphy.

I had many discussions with colleagues, especially Sterling Dow and later Christian Habicht. I realized that we would need to work with a group of professional epigraphers, and that the TLG method of sending books to China for data entry could not be used for these texts. Using the Ibycus computer at the Institute for Advanced Study, Don McCabe created collections of inscriptions from various regions of Asia Minor. These became an important early component of our database.

In 1985, I worked with Kevin Clinton at Cornell and Steve Tracy at Ohio State to design projects at their home universities that would collect and edit inscriptions in a form suitable for our planned database. My foundation provided funding to hire three full-time professional epigraphers as well as some additional support. These three scholars, John Mansfield and Nancy Cooper at Cornell, and Philip Forsythe at Ohio State, have worked a combined total of nearly 90 years preparing Greek inscriptions for our database. All of this work was funded by PHI (and previously the Packard Foundation). In addition, PHI provided the equipment and technical support. Wilkins Poe has been responsible for the website. PHI has spent at least ten million dollars on this project.

The quality of the data is largely due to these scholars.

Our initial collaborators have retired or nearly so. PHI is very aware that we need to find new collaborators, but I do not think we should change the basic structure of the project by turning it into a “Wiki” style organization. The model of supporting a small team of dedicated epigraphers has worked well. They have always worked with outside collaborators, who have prepared material for inclusion. But the texts have always been verified by our team before they are accepted in the database.

For the past year PHI has been actively planning the next stage of our various scholarly database projects, including Latin and Greek inscriptions. We are giving serious thought to creating a center at our Stoa in Santa Clarita, perhaps affiliated with UCLA, which would host a series of related projects that offer broad and free public access to collections of historical texts and other materials (including music and even historic newsreels).

I was disappointed that the Petition encouraged the misinterpretation of a sentence I wrote describing our project to the public: “One of PHI’s oldest projects is a comprehensive database of all ancient Greek inscriptions, which is extraordinarily useful to an extraordinarily small number of expert epigraphers.” It is surely fair to say that the number of people who can read inscriptions in ancient Greek is rather small, compared with the number of people who might benefit, for example, from our Mozart website. I did not say that the work of Greek scholars was unimportant or not worthy of support. In fact my record and that of my foundation for over fifty years have made it abundantly clear that I do consider this work extremely valuable. Why did I choose to make Classical Philology my profession if I did not? Why did I develop the Ibycus computer system? Why did I found PHI?

To put the numbers in perspective, however, the Petition has collected about 2,500 signatures. The YouTube recording of a concert PHI sponsored with Alma Deutscher has been viewed over two million times. A PHI recording of Alma Deutscher’s Cinderella was watched by 45,000 people in the first three weeks. Alma Deutscher’s music and Greek inscriptions are both important to PHI.

Judging from the comments on the Petition website, it appears that many people have been persuaded that PHI does not value the Inscriptions project and that PHI may not intend to continue to support it. There is absolutely no basis for this implication and it was highly irresponsible of the Petition to plant this doubt. We are in a period of transition between old and new teams, and there may seem to be a temporary slowdown in the rate of inscriptions being added to the database.

Our project centers at Cornell and Ohio State were essential for the first 40 years of the PHI Epigraphy project. Sooner or later, it was clear that PHI would need to seek new partners. We intend to continue to support a core team of full-time professional epigraphers, who will continue to work collaboratively with colleagues in various locations. PHI has always welcomed comments and suggestions about the project. Our home page has always invited this.

PS: Here are some other PHI websites.