The Trajan’s Column Project


Trajan’s Column, a 35m-tall structure in Rome, is an important historical object that is decorated from top to bottom with a series of elaborate engravings. The Trajan’s Column project aimed to create a digital representation of the column with a searchable online database. Other digital databases of the column already exist but the novel aspect of this project is the exhaustive cataloguing of each individual figure. Study of the column necessitates access to detailed, high-quality images and the project meets this need by making a catalogue of over 1,700 images available. Similarly, precise analysis of individual figures is made possible by the provision of academic information on each figure. The finished website therefore contains a mixture of images (divided into diagrams, cast images and shaft images) and textual descriptions of the figures.

What is Trajan’s Column?

Trajan’s Column has emerged as an object of intense academic interest partly because of the level of detail in its engravings. Other examples of architecture from the Roman Empire have survived but the column is remarkable for the precision and intricacy its figures exhibit. Furthermore, the column has a balcony from which visitors can survey Rome from above.  As such, the column is an important historical artefact which is appealing as a subject for further study.

Positioned within the Forum Traiani, the column is an epic monument to the two Dacian wars of 101-102 and 105-106 AD.  The carvings document the expansion of the Roman Empire into Eastern Europe under the command of the emperor Trajan. The two wars are given approximately the same amount of space, although there is more fighting within the first half and more travelling within the second half. The column serves to glorify the emperor and publicise his military successes. By contrast, the Dacian king Decebalus is represented as a nemesis who is eventually beheaded.

There is a quite dazzling array of figures depicted on the column, including both Roman and Dacian soldiers, civilians, deities, standard bearers, musicians, ceremonial attendants and archers. A great variety of different styles of armour, clothing and weaponry are evident amongst the figures and it has been suggested that variations can be attributed to the individual techniques of different sculptors.

Casts of the column were made in the 1860s which have helped to preserve the detail of the engravings in a different material. An analysis of both the casts and the original in contrast is the necessary for fruitful academic study. As a result, the project was involved in cataloguing images of both casts and ‘shaft’ (the original column) and clearly demarking the different types of images. These images were primarily photos of the column taken by the project’s Principle Investigator, Dr Jon Coulston of the School of Classics.

Other digital resources of the column already exist, including that of the German Archaeological Institute (GAI). The GAI archive is particularly useful because it features photographs of the column which are categorised by scene rather than drawings or artistic representations. The St Andrews project differs from others in that it is primarily composed of full-colour photographs. The most distinctive aspect, however, is the categorisation of figures within scenes.

The Process: The Database

This raw data next had to be put into a database format. The University’s image database was used as a system in which to input data. The image database conforms to the Visual Resources Association’s (VRA) Core 4 standard. Specifically, it differentiates between works and images of works and specifies the relationship between images. Individual scenes/figures or groups of scenes/figures were designated as works. Diagrams were demarked as ‘parent images’ to other diagrams and a link formed between them.

There were two basic types of entries: those relating to images and those relating to figures. Images were typically of multiple images or scenes and were divided into five categories: figure, figures, scene, scenes and detail. ‘Scene’ was used for images which contained all the figures from within a scene and ‘scenes’ for images which featured images from more than one scene. ‘Detail’ was used for images which did not feature one figure in its entirety but which perhaps focused on a particular helmet, shield or building. Figure entries were always designated as ‘figure’ and contained the figure description. Whilst there may be a possibility that images could be uploaded in the future for each individual figure these entries currently remain without images.

The Process: Types of Data

The column has traditionally been divided into 155 scenes in order to enable simple engravings to be simply referenced. The project maintained these scene divisions but added the further specification of numbering the individual figures within these scenes. The figures were numbered from left to right in each scene so that the leftmost figure in scene 1 was designated as figure 1. Each figure was given a five digit reference code so that scene 1 figure 1 was 001.01. Some scenes (such as scene 40) contained as many as 72 figures whereas others (such as scenes 3 and 78) only contained one. It is hoped that this unique system of designating figures will enable scholars to refer to specific figures of interest with increased clarity.

Three types of data were involved and this data formed the basis for the searchable database. The first type of data was images. These images were divided into three categories: diagrams, cast photos and shaft photos. The diagrams were simple black and white drawings which were produced for each scene with each figure being clearly numbered within the diagram. The photos were labelled with a file name that indicated the scene(s) and figure(s) it referred to and whether it was either a cast photo or a shaft photo. The difference between the two photo types is important and so there was a paramount need for accuracy when inputting the data and for clarifying the correct designation when it was unclear. Other information, such as the date when the photo was taken, may have been useful in order to comply more fully with the VRA Core 4 standard but it was necessary to recognise the limitations within both the data that was supplied and the exhaustiveness of the project.

Secondly, data was supplied by Dr Coulston relating to each individual figure, describing the figure type, armour details and so on. This information appears in the website in such a way that users see that figure 1 from scene 5 has lorica hamata armour then simply clicking on this armour type displays the other figures which possess this type of armour. Thirdly, image coordinates were generated by a programme that analysed the SVG images of the diagrams. The coordinates create a link between the diagram of the column and the diagrams of the individual scenes and between the diagrams of scenes and entries relating to individual figures. This feature meant that scenes could be clearly located within the column as a whole and that there was a visual element to navigating through the website.

The Outcome: The Trajan’s Project Website

The website was designed by Mary Woodock-Kroble and Swithun Crowe. A PHP script pulled XML data out of the image database, transforms the data and adds it to a Solr index. This index is the basis for search queries. Emma Lewsley was charged with checking the entries for any errors or inconsistencies. The finished website allows users to search the column by scene or figure. There is also the option to ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’ through scenes and figures.

The website may be accessed at the following address: I would like to thank Dr Jon Coulston for allowing me to reproduce his photo here and for contributing information about the column.

How to Search the Column

Screenshot 1Figure 1: Users may search the column in two main ways. Firstly, they may identify a scene of interest from a diagram of the column in its entirety that is labelled in Roman numerals. For example, hovering over ‘LIII’ reveals a link to Scene 53.

Screenshot 2Figure 2: A diagram of the relevant scene is included, allowing the user to select an individual figure. Again, links are included in the diagram so that clicking on ‘1’ provides access to the entry for scene 53 figure 1.

Screenshot 3Figure 3: Each figure entry contains information relating to the figure. Clicking on ‘zoom out’ shows the user the images in which figure 1 features.

Screenshot 4Figure 4: Alternatively, users can search by typing a scene/figure number into the search boxes on the left.

Screenshot 5Figure 5: Here a search for ‘053’ brings up all the figure entries for that scene and all the images that relate to scene 53.

Screenshot 6Figure 6: Each image entry contains information on the material (cast or shaft) and an image type (figure, figures, scene, scenes or detail).

My Summer With the Trajan’s Column Project

During June 2013 I participated in an internship within the Research Computing service within IT Services, working on the Trajan’s Column project on behalf of the School of Classics. Essentially, my work involved cataloguing academic data and images related to the column into a searchable online database. A more in-depth explanation of the project, the column and the implementation process is available in another blog post. In contrast, this blog post offers a more personal reflection on my role within the project, the challenges that I encountered and other projects that are on-going within the remit of the Research Computing team.

Trajan’s Column: The Challenges

One of the initial hurdles to overcome at the project’s outset was entering and becoming familiar with two worlds which I was previously unfamiliar: that of Classics and that of digital cataloguing. Whilst a high degree of academic knowledge of Roman history was not necessary in my role I nevertheless had to engage to a certain extent with the subject matter that I was cataloguing.

Sometimes I found that scene diagrams had been uploaded incorrectly so that they referred to a different scene altogether and sometimes the photos were labelled with the wrong scene or figure number. The occasions on which I was able to spot errors such as these helped the project achieve a higher degree of accuracy. Similarly, I had to learn how to operate the university’s image database. I already had some previous experience with using a different form of software but it was nevertheless necessary to get to grips with the image database’s format and layout. Fortunately, this was not a difficult task.

Once I had gravitated myself within these new worlds I was faced with the challenges involved in actually completing the work. These were compounded by the importance of the project, which had been selected by the School of Classics to be connected to a case study for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) in 2014. The REF initiative is an exercise that assesses the quality of research in higher education institutions and, amongst other things, has implications for the levels of funding that these institutions receive. The completed part of the Trajan’s Column project is also envisaged to be a pilot for potential future funding. Given the inherent value attached to the project the need for accuracy and efficiency in my work was key. Much of my role involved moving data from one digital location (for example, a word processing document) to another (the image database). The repetitiveness of this process meant that there was the possibility of errors entering into the data as it was transferred across. A close eye for detail was required to spot mistakes as and when they occurred and to guard against their inclusion in the finished website. Emma Lewsley, an intern working on a Biographical Register project with the Library, gave a great deal of assistance in this area in checking the work that I had uploaded to the image database. The final pressure was the pressure of time, given that my internship lasted only four weeks and that it was preferable for the project to be completed in that time.

The Biographical Register

A secondary responsibility of my role was to check the work done on a Biographical Register. The Biographical Register contains data referring to University of St Andrews alumni and the work on this project was undertaken by Emma Lewsley. I was responsible for checking Emma’s work for any errors or inconsistencies and similarly she proofread my own work. The Register was compiled by Robert N. Smart and in its revised format features a variety of sections. There is a name section, a qualifications section (although members of staff are also included), a birth/baptism section, a careers section, a death section and references section. Each section is not necessarily present in every entry and some entries contain no data except the name! An editorial decision was made to break the data up into the various sections and this mark-up was achieved by a programme. Nevertheless, human input was required to confirm that the entries had been marked up correctly. In addition, data such as names, dates and occupations were tagged within each section in order to make the database searchable.

The challenges of the Trajan’s Column project were in many ways applicable to my work on the Biographical Register as well. There was a need for accuracy and a close eye for detail in order to spot mistakes in the database. Balancing my time between my own project and the Biographical Register was also important. Since the first part of the Register contains the records of 11,744 people the magnitude of the task (which was not ultimately completed) facing Emma and myself was significant!

Other Projects Within IT Services

In the course of my internship I gained a certain degree of insight into the workings of IT Services within the University. I worked closely with Swithun Crowe, the Applications Developer in the Research Computing team. He served as a useful source of council on the more technical aspects of the project but also introduced me to some of the previous and contemporary projects which he has worked on. The ‘Records of the Scottish Parliament to 1707’ project is a complex one which enables users to search the manuscripts of the Scottish parliament in both the original languages (such as Latin) and in English. This project stretched over more than a decade after its genesis with the School of History in 1996 and involved an extensive period of transcription of the original documents into a digital format. Swithun was heavily involved in creating the online database for the website. Other projects included a corpus of Scottish medieval parish churches and a website devoted to Arabic semantics. It was apparent that the work undertaken by the Research Computing team is diverse and intriguing.


I am grateful to have had the opportunity to be involved professionally with digital cataloguing and the challenges that it contains. It was particularly satisfying to be able to witness the Trajan’s Column project progress from partially completed concept to the finished website as it currently appears.