SOAS University of London

SOAS recieves first ERC Proof of Concept grant for the Multimedia Yasna International Image Interoperability Framework

27 April 2020

SOAS is proud to announce that Professor Almut Hintze has received a Proof of Concept (PoC) grant from the European Research Council (ERC). This is SOAS’s first of such grants, which are designed to turn research outputs into a socially, and potentially commercially, valuable proposition. The grant is one of only two PoC grants which go to a Humanities project out of a total of 55 PoC awards this round, worth €150,000 each. The grants are part of the EU's research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020.

Professor Almut is a distinguished scholar in Zoroastrianism in the School of History, Religion and Philosophy at SOAS. Since 2016, she has been leading an ERC funded Advanced Grant, The Multimedia Yasna (MUYA). This 5-year long, €2.5 million project is concerned with the text and performance of the most ancient ritual known as the Yasna, of Zoroastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran. Almut and her team will have photographed and catalogued the complete Zoroastrian manuscript collections of two libraries in India, developed digital tools for electronic editing of texts and produced print editions of texts from the Yasna by the end of the project in 2021.

Upon receiving the Proof of Concept grant, Professor Almut Hintze, Co-Chair of the SOAS Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zoroastrian Studies said:

"I am delighted about this award because it enables the MUYA team to develop an essential annotation tool in collaboration with a subcontractor and to publish the manuscripts which the team photographed in 2017 and 2019. The work of this Proof of Concept project will lay the foundation of an archive of manuscript images in the Zoroastrian Digital Collections of SOAS's Shapoorji Pallonji Institute of Zoroastrian Studies. We are also looking forward to working with the British Library on the publication of some of their Avestan manuscripts using the new MUYA-IIIF tool."

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About the Multimedia Yasna International Image Interoperability Framework (MUYA-IIIF):

The Multimedia Yasna (MUYA) examines the performance and written transmission of the core ritual of the Zoroastrian tradition, the Yasna, whose oldest parts date from the second millennium BCE. Composed in an ancient Iranian language, Avestan, the texts were transmitted orally and not written down until the fifth or sixth century C.E. The oral tradition continues to be central to the religion and the daily Yasna ceremony, the most important of all the rituals, is recited from memory by Zoroastrian priests. The interpretation of the Yasna has long been hampered by out-dated editions and translations of the text and until now there has been no documentation and study of the performance of the full ritual. The project MUYA will examine both the oral and written traditions. It will film a performance of the Yasna ritual and create a critical edition of the recitation text examining the Yasna both as a performance and as a text attested in manuscripts. The two approaches will be integrated to answer questions about the meaning and function of the Yasna in a historical perspective.

Combining models and methodologies from digital humanities, philology and linguistics, the project will produce a subtitled, interactive film of the Yasna ritual, an online platform of transcribed manuscripts and editorial tools together with print editions, translations and commentaries of the Avestan Yasna. Information which was formerly restricted to students of Iranian philology and practising Zoroastrians will now become accessible to a world-wide audience through digital humanities.

Images published on the web are currently locked up in silos because institutions use different image delivery software on their networks, one that is usually tightly coupled with their custom metadata structures. This has led to isolated data silos that prevent information to be easily reused. The International Image Interoperability Framework (IIIF) solves this problem with a set of protocols or Application Programming Interfaces (API), for requests between computers to allow images and metadata held in different digital repositories to be accessed in a standardised format. The IIIF standard is now used by a growing number of major libraries and other institutions around the globe.

However, it is not possible in IIIF to locate a particular text passage without searching the whole manuscript because there are no tools to create and search document structure (as opposed to textual annotations and commentaries, for which tools already exist). MUYA-IIIF will establish proof of concept of the idea, generated by the ERC-funded project The Multimedia Yasna (MUYA, AdG 694612, 2016–2021), to develop and implement a IIIF compliant tool for annotating textual structure (e.g. siglum, title, folio number, chapter, stanza, verse), associate the image with the structured transcription of the text it bears, and make such structure detectable within IIIF. This PoC will 1) enable “expert sourcing” via an open source platform to capture structural information in multiple manuscript witnesses; 2) represent structural information in a way that connects the intellectual structure of the object with the user’s viewing experience; 3) potentially use machine assisted segmentation in marking up the text to create structure; 4) connect the metadata, structural metadata, and TEI-XML transcripts with the images in a unified user experience; 5) use open source software built on open standards, to create a reusable seamless user experience that replaces a typically onerous process.

About the European Research Council

The European Research Council (ERC), set up by the European Union in 2007, is the premiere European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. Every year, it selects and funds the very best, creative researchers of any nationality and age, to run projects in Europe. The ERC also strives to attract top researchers from anywhere in the world to come to work in Europe. To date, the ERC has funded more than 9,000 top researchers at various stages of their careers. It offers four core grant schemes: Starting, Consolidator, Advanced and Synergy Grants. The ERC is led by an independent governing body, the Scientific Council. The ERC has a budget of over €13 billion for the years 2014 to 2020, part of Horizon 2020, for which European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science Mariya Gabriel is responsible.