Creating and integrating a database – work in progress

By Marieke Hendriksen

As mentioned in the post introducing the ARTECHNE project at Utrecht University last month, we are in the process of creating a database containing recipes, artist handbooks, and art theoretical texts that can clarify the development of the use of the term ‘technique’, as well as related terms referring to processes of making and doing. The database is linked to Geographical Information Software (GIS), thus creating an online historical semantic map of ‘technique’. Such maps are more than merely nice illustrations; they can reveal connections that remain hidden otherwise.

We are in the fortunate position where we can build the database on an existing one, namely the excellent Colour ConText database. However, we do not simply want to offer a copy of the Colour ConText database, we want to integrate it with other sources on artisanal practices and theories, such as recipes, books of secrets, art theoretical texts, and artist handbooks, from the period 1500-1900, in Latin, Dutch, German, English, French, Italian and Spanish. The entire database has to be searchable with advance searches, allowing users to search full text for occurrences of terms, in particular geographical or linguistic areas and periods, or to trace the changing uses and meanings of particular terms over time, linking various forms of terms and different terms with a similar meaning in relational tables and glossaries.

Sneak preview of the new database website
Preview of the new database website

For example, if we want to know how instructions for making paint have changed in the low countries between 1600 and 1900, we want to be able to select all available sources from that period and area and search them for imperatives, nouns, measurements, and particular ingredients. We also want to be able to distinguish between printed and manuscript sources, artist handbooks and household recipes books, and ideally we want to be able to search annotations and marginalia too, as well as differences between various editions of the same work. That means a lot of different parameters have to be specified for each source, and everything we include must be carefully checked before it is added.

One of the problems we encountered when selecting the first sources we wanted to add was the low reliability of Optical Character Recognition software when used on early modern printed sources – a problem I have written about on my own blog before. We do not just want to combine existing digitized sources in our database, but also to add texts that have not been digitized and made searchable thus far. However, that often involves lengthy correction processes. One of the solutions we are considering is crowd sourcing such corrections. Fortunately, we can also add many digitized sources that are available under Creative Commons licenses (i.e. from the Digital Library of the Netherlands), and various researchers have contacted us to discuss adding their own datasets to the database.

The first edition of the database is now online – have a look at http://artechne.hum.uu.nl!  Please note that this is a first version, and that the database will be improved and continue to grow for the duration of the project. Over the next few months, we will focus on increasing searchability and adding new sources. If you have any questions or suggestions, please contact us at artechne[at]uu.nl.

Finally, we will also explore the options of maintaining the database after the end of the ARTECHNE project, for example by depositing the datasets or even the entire infrastructure with an archival institution.

The ERC ARTECHNE project has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 648718) and is a cooperation of Utrecht University and University of Amsterdam.

A Cartography of Chocolate

by Kathryn E. Sampeck

While in some ways colonization happened in people’s heads—through formal edicts and informal conjuring of new attitudes and affiliations—colonial change occurred also through bodily, tactile encounters. The work of creating new combinations of objects and spaces to re-order a sense of self and community, the doing of colonizing, relied upon sensory experiences such as taste. Because colonization ineluctably involved geographic links, recipes provide an opportunity to map out a history of taste using Geographic Information Systems (GIS), a powerful program that displays spatial associations of evidence. GIS gives us the chance to see with fresh eyes. GIS mapping[1] of the ingredients for colonial cacao drink recipes gives a nuanced view into colonial entanglement by more precisely defining taste networks stretching across the Atlantic from the sixteenth through the early nineteenth century.

Figure 1. Branch, fruit, seed, and flower of a cacao tree. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 1. Branch, fruit, seed, and flower of a cacao tree. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

Pre-Columbian texts as well as sixteenth-century chronicles of colonization of Central America and Mexico described cacao beverages [Figure 1]. The particular flavor, scent, and appearance of these drinks distinguished different concoctions that were iconic of a region [Figure 2]. Most sources state that the cacao beverage “chocolat” came from colonial Guatemala.[2] ‘Chocolat’, a word from the southern Central American language Pipil (Nahuat) [3], is one of few untranslated American food names, unlike ‘maize’ versus ‘corn’ or ‘tlilxochitl’ versus ‘vanilla’. People every day and across the world speak a little Pipil when they ask for chocolate.

Figure 2. A depiction of each stage of indigenous cacao beverage making. From Montanus, Arnoldus, 1671, De Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America, Amsterdam, Jacob Meurs Boek-verkooper en Plaet-snyder, op de Kaisars-graf, schuin over de wester-markt, in de stad Meurs. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 2. A depiction of each stage of indigenous cacao beverage making. From Montanus, Arnoldus, 1671, De Nieuwe en onbekende Weereld: of Beschryving van America, Amsterdam, Jacob Meurs Boek-verkooper en Plaet-snyder, op de Kaisars-graf, schuin over de wester-markt, in de stad Meurs. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

One of the earliest references to chocolate was a poem on an allegoric arch erected in Guatemala in 1579 that stated chocolate was cacao flavored with achiote.[4] As more and more people on both sides of the Atlantic consumed chocolate, exactly what chocolate was became a shifting target across space and over time. Indigenous American recipes in materia medica, cookbooks, and treatises had common ingredients of chile, vanilla, and achiote. Frequent European flavors were cinnamon, almonds, anise, ambergris, and musk. How then, to compare what literally are apples and oranges?

The Jaccard similarity coefficient calculates the percentage of common ingredients. The result has spatial information—the geographic source area for the recipe—and a measure of the degree of similarity to other recipes, represented by the thickness of the arrows in the GIS map [Figure 3].

Figure 3. GIS map based on the degree of similarity of chocolate recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Thayn, Illinois State University.
Figure 3. GIS map based on the degree of similarity of chocolate recipes. Courtesy of Jonathan Thayn, Illinois State University.

These culinary paths show that Guatemalan, Mexican, and European cacao recipes significantly differed from each other. These are sharply divided lines, formed perhaps by an inception in Guatemala, then “speciation” in other regions. Untranslated in name, the wide array of kinds of chocolate did communicate sensory experiences of sweetness, spices, colors and scent that were a mimesis by colonists of Mesoamerican values.[5] This simulacra of taste, however, was fundamentally altered from the substance that inspired it, a process that created instead icons of chocolateness rather than rote copies of Pipil chocolat [Figure 4]. At the same time, one, untranslated term, chocolate, grew to incorporate a much wider realm of meaning, referring to a broad class of conditions, flavors, and colors. The colonizing process made chocolate intimately unfamiliar. Chocolate is the epitome of the discordant core of colonialism.

Figure 4. European man grinds cacao in the same manner as a Native American. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.
Figure 4. European man grinds cacao in the same manner as a Native American. From Chez Thomas Amaulry, 1687, Le bon usage du thé, du caffé, et du chocolat pour la preservation & pour la guerison des maladies, Lyon, ruë Merciere, au Mercure Galant. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University.

[1] The GIS map was created by Jonathan Thayn of the Geology and Geography Department of Illinois State University.

[2] Mariscal Haz, B. (ed.) Carta del Padre Pedro de Morales. (Mexico City, Colección Biblioteca Novohispana, V. Centro de Estudios Lingüísticos y Literarios, El Colegio de México. 2000 [1579])

[3] a language of southern Central America (colonial Guatmala) from the same language family as Nahuatl of the Aztecs

[4] Mariscal Haz (2000) p. 57.

[5] Norton, Marcy  “Tasting Empire: Chocolate and the European Internalization of Mesoamerican Aesthetics.” The American Historical Review 111(3), .(2006), 660–691.