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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).

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