Maria Pantella

FEATURE by Mavis Manus

"All my life, since the age of 12, I was convinced that I'd spend my life studying, teaching and writing about the classics, particularly Homer," says Professor Maria Pantelia, director of Thesaurus Linguae Graecae (TLG) at UC Irvine. But here she is, working far into the night in front of her computer, overseeing no less a task than the transferring to CD-Roms of every printed text in the Greek language. "While it's my aspiration eventually to write a book on my idol, Helen of Troy, the work I'm doing here benefits everyone in the field and will be a unique aid in producing fine work."

Both parents worked for the government in Athens, her father was a judge in the Supreme Court and her mother was an administrator. Her brother received a PhD in Economics at Washington University in St. Louis and is at present Senior Adviser at the National Bank of Greece in Athens. Maria alone in the family, had a classical literary bent, studying classics and linguistics in Athens, and completed her graduate work and PhD at Ohio State University.

Then she got an offer to teach in Boston at the Greek Orthodox Seminary at Holy Cross. "Even though I was a classicist and I didn't think this was exactly an ideal job for me, I thought it was an opportunity to work in the Greek community and teach modern Greek." When a tenure track position opened in the Classics Department at the University of New Hampshire she somehow juggled both teaching jobs for two years before giving up the seminary.

Her mythology classes at UNH were so popular - 600 students per semester - that she was awarded the '1966 Excellence in the Teaching of Classics Award' by the American Philological Association. Still, she felt isolated, with not too much in the way of intellectual excitement. "Looking around for something to expand my education I became fascinated by computer technology." This was indeed fortuitous because in 1996 UC Irvine was shopping for someone who combined classical education with a background in technology.

Twenty seven years ago, a graduate student at UC Irvine, Marianne McDonald, needed to find terms for 'happiness' for her dissertation on Euripides. While painstakingly plowing through his plays she came up with a million-dollar idea: 'Why can't we do this in the computer?' The concept was extraordinary as, until then, no-one had considered the marriage of classical scholarship with the rapidly emerging new technologies. It was unknown ground for humanist and computer specialist alike. Ted Brunner, the chairman of the Greek Classics Department, was inspired by her ideas, especially when McDonald offered the university a million dollars to establish the project. Scholars from all over the world gathered to map out the plan which was to compile a computerized databank of Greek classical printed texts, starting with Homer.

Initially, it was thought that the program, named Thesaurus Graecae Linguae (Treasury of the Greek Language), would include about 400 authors. But that was only the beginning.

Classicist David Packard (son of co-founder of Hewlett- Packard) created a special computer, the size of two giant refrigerators and with a hard drive that looks like a washing machine. He called it IBYCUS, the name of his cat. While nowadays this cumbersome machinery has been upgraded to no larger than a desk PC, the complicated system to process the texts is still utilized.

Now, 27 years later, Ted Brunner was stepping down as director of the project and when Professor Pantelia submitted her CV, the department realized they had the perfect candidate for the job.

Over the years, the aims of TLG have enlarged. When the Classical period was completed it was decided to forge ahead and plunge into the Byzantine years. The number of authors whose works are indexed had risen to over 3,000 (the numbers are assigned somewhat randomly; for instance Apollonius of Rhodes is #1, and Homer is #12), 10,000 works, and a database of 80 million words. The Byzantine period is expected to be completed in five years, and as long as the project is financed, Pantelia would like to see the scope extended to the present century. "For the modern period the number of texts increases significantly," and she adds, "Hopefully I will live long enough to finish the 20th century." Of course the cost of TLG has leapt far ahead of the original $1 million from Marianne McDonald to more than ten times that amount.

When TLG began, there were neither sophisticated scanners nor Greek language keyboards, so a complicated system of coding had to be worked out so that all texts would have the same format. "David Packard and his team developed an encoding system which uses sequences of Roman characters to record Greek," explained Pantelia. "For instance an 'a' equals 'alfa', but an alpha with an accent adds a slash or a backslash." The books are sent to China where typists are trained to recognize and encode about two thousand characters.

"A program then automatically scans the text, highlights a possible problem which a graduate student checks. Another program converts the text back into Greek."

What is also extraordinary is the accuracy of the typing. The Chinese have a contract in which they cannot have more than one error per 24,000 key strokes, so the text comes back essentially letter perfect.

Already 3,000 CD Roms have been distributed and Pantelia and her crew of nine literary specialists and computer whizzes are working to produce a new one which will include all 10,000 works. The department has a mailing list of at least 20,000 but of course the number of people who use each CD is much much higher. A university may have one but the whole department and faculty could be using it. These are not sold, but licensed, and the income generated partly covers the running costs of TLG. "We are building an endowment right now and I hope we will get to the point where we can lower the cost. The National Endowment for Humanities has offered a matching grant of $2 million."

One of the great services that TLG has done is to identify all the authors, even though we may have one line or even one word surviving, but at least now we have their names in the Canon of Greek Authors. This was the work of Prof Luci Berkowitz and Karl Squitier who did the original research at TLG. The list of authors grew into a serious research project and now the canon is published as a book by Oxford University Press. "We are going to make this Canon of Greek Authors available on the internet so that anyone can pull it up. It is a huge data base of every known ancient and Byzantine author, the published editions of his works and other information like dates of birth, geographical origin, title of works, and what likely connections with other authors."

Of course the obvious advantage is in finding certain words or ideas appear in Greek literature over the ages. Research that used to take years can now be completed in seconds. "You cannot do any kind of research in classics today without using the TLG. Half of our users are not affiliated with universities; they are individuals interested in religion, philosophy, linguistics or Greek language and literature in general." Medical texts, alchemical and magical works, astrological writings, all are included.

Pantelia is fascinated by the changes in the language- from classical, to koine, and the Byzantine Greeks who tried to imitate the ancient writing. After 1453 the language changes from an official style to more and more demotic.

Nothing is as old as yesterday's technology and Pantelia's department is in the midst of a major improvement. She has been responsible for upgrading the coding system as well as recreating all the programs that Packard invented for the unwieldy IBYCUS so that work can be done on standard PCs. With multiple backup and security measures, so far nothing has been lost. Possibly more conversions will have to be made when Unicode comes up with a complete Greek keyboard. At all stages, Philhellene Marianne McDonald, who is a most revered and respected Professor of Classics at the UC San Diego, visits and gives moral support.

TLG is not alone in the classical cybernetic field. Tufts University in Boston is working on a related project they call PERSEUS. Although they have digitized only a small number of texts, they have a fine collection of integrated images, so that teachers can pull up photographs related to the text.

In another sister undertaking, Claremount University has an agreement with the Patriarchal Institute in Thessaloniki to digitize all the manuscripts in Mt. Athos. "This is particularly important," said Pantelia, "because there are thousands of manuscripts that are deteriorating; also it would make them available to women who cannot enter Mt. Athos, and the many scholars in Europe who don't have the time or financial means to examine those manuscripts. We would eventually encompass this work in TLG but separately as we don't enter papyri - only published editions."

Pantelia is in great demand to write and give talks about TLG as well as classical subjects in her field, though we will have to wait some years before she can finish the book close to her heart. But she says, "TLG produces something that can be used by thousands of people. We make sure that Greek literature will be preserved, and to me that's more important. It's worth leaving Helen aside for a while."