GIS mapping of Leptis magna

Francesca Bigi, specialist in antique architectural decoration and epigraphy, spent a month at the CRC “Material Text Cultures”. During her time at the CRC, she answered by questions about her  work on the digital map of inscriptions found in the remains of the antique city of Leptis magna.

(Interview: Sept., 20th 2016)

Nele Schneidereit: Dear Francesca, you are visiting researcher for the month of September at the CRC 933 “Material Text Cultures”. Could you please describe what you are working on during your time in Heidelberg?

Francesca Bigi: I enter data into a geographic information system (GIS) – a digital map so to speak – of the antique city of Leptis magna, which is situated at the coast of what is today Libya. The map will show the spatial distribution of inscriptions within the city, and especially in its three most important buildings – the Old Forum, the Forum Severianum and the market. Also, I enter information about the material of these script bearing artefacts, about whether it was reused or not – reuse being a huge topic in antiquity –, what type of monument it is, who was honored with it, and whether the artefact still stands in its original place. These data are categorized, thus you can search for instance for the material marble and the map will highlight all the marble artefacts. If you click on one, it will automatically link with the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg which will give you all the other pieces of information, we have on it. I take the information from the book I wrote together with my colleague Ignazio Tantillo about Leptis magna, published in 2010: Leptis Magna. Una città e le sue iscrizioni in epoca tardoromana. When I came to Heidelberg in 2014, I updated many Leptis-entries of the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg and uploaded pictures of inscriptions. These entries can now be connected to the GIS-map I am working on. For the time being, the map is part of MTK-Online, but prospectively it will be open access.

Is the theoretic framework of the CRC 933, i.e. praxeological analysis of script bearing artefacts in order to better understand their meaning, of importance for your work?

Definitely. Without material analysis we would only have the text. The book Ignazio Tantillo and I wrote about Leptis would have been very thin if we had only edited the mere texts of the inscriptions. The whole thing is about looking at the artefacts from all angles, describe them and their surroundings carefully. Doing so changes future research fundamentally. For instance, for one site one hundred inscriptions were documented. Our material analysis at Leptis showed that twice as many inscriptions at the site had been removed. Though we do not know anything about their content, we can say now that there were at least three hundred inscriptions.

In which ways can future research benefit from your work on the GIS-Map?

There are a lot of possibilities. To begin with, it is very helpful to search the map by categories like type of inscription or person honored – especially because currently there are no archaeological activities in Leptis. Also, to learn about the topographical distribution and type of inscriptions at an antique site can give crucial information about social life in antiquity. For example, historians can use our data as evidence for theories about social changes in antiquity, if we find out that the type of inscriptions and the type of persons honored changed within a certain time span.

How is the situation in Libya today for archaeologists and epigraphists?

Unfortunately, the situation is very bad. The last time I was there was in 2006. Due to the political situation, archaeological work is not possible in Libya at the moment. It is too unstable now, and unfortunately, the situation is unlikely to change anytime soon. This is a pity, especially because there is still a lot of research to be done in Leptis Magna and other archaeological sites.

There are people who say, the rest of Leptis should not be excavated because of the decay caused by sand and wind. Do you agree with this?

In a certain respect, excavation always is destruction and poses therefore the question of conservation, which can be a very complicated and costly issue. But I think, Leptis is mainly constructed from durable materials and with a decent level of maintenance conservation should be possible. Of course it is always a matter of funding. But concerning the research on Leptis, it would be vital to excavate more parts of the city. For instance, we do not know anything about the private houses, thus cannot really say anything about private life in Leptis. Also, the excavated parts were dug out in the first decades of the XXth century, when stratigraphy was unknown and when the main focus was on the ‘original’ imperial phases. Therefore, all material from later times was neglected and very poorly documented during these excavations. For the old city center, these younger layers are lost, but for the bigger part of the city, which is still covered by sand, they are still preserved. Hopefully, it will be possible in a few years to continue our work in Leptis.

Thank you very much for the interview!


Francesca Bigi is an independent researcher specialized in architectural decoration. She has worked in Leptis Magna, Libya, from 1998 to 2006, focusing on two main subjects: the forms of local architectural decoration and the forms, characteristics and reuse of epigraphic supports. In 2008 she completed her Ph.D. with a thesis on the capitals of Pompeii, and in the years 2013-2016 took part, as a collaborator of the British School at Rome, to the EAGLE project (European network of Ancient Greek and Latin Epigraphy), working on the inscriptions from Libya. Within the same project she also carried out an update and enhancement of the Leptis Magna records contained in the Epigraphic Database Heidelberg.
Contact: frabigi @

Dr. Nele Schneidereit is research coordinator of the CRC 933.

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