In this manual you’ll learn how to use the Time Capsule system. To take you through all functionalities we use a drug component called Asafoetida as an example.

Asafoetida is a resinous gum that was used in pharmacy from the 16th century onwards. Due to its strong smell, it was known as Devil’s dung in many European languages. In this example, we want to know how its historical trajectories evolved over time.

Step 1

The first and most obvious way of tracing information about Asafoetida is by searching for it in the Drug Components tab (see figure 1, below). The Drug Components tab is part of the faceted search interface which the Time Capsule platform provides for browsing, in this case, all system knowledge related to drug components. With the auto-complete function in the search text box (on the left hand side of the screen, indicated by the magnifying glass), several spelling variants for this drug component pop up (the list with red bullets below the search text box).

Clicking on any of them will show the information found in the reference sources for this drug component: six different spelling variants; four Reference sources that mention this substance; a map that highlights the Publication location of the References; and a list with a total of 25 references to this drug component.

At this stage, no information is shown in the Produced By Plant header, which means that there is not any explicit information, i.e. relation, in our knowledge graph about the plant species from which the drug component Asafoetida is derived. However, the system provides other options to proceed.

Figure 1

Step 2

The query for Asafoetida also gives results in the Naturalia tab, the part of the faceted search in the Time Capsule platform that allows browsing and search of information related to all plant species information in our system (see figure 2, below). We discover in the Naturalia tab section that Asafoetida is also a spelling variant for the plant from which the drug component with the same name derives: Ferula assa-foetida.

The result for this query shows several spelling variants for the plant, which are similar but not identical to the spelling variants for the drug component Asafoetida. Unsurprisingly, there are not any drug components for this plant mentioned under the Produces Drug Components header: we already saw that the explicit relation/link between this plant and its respective drug component is absent.

However, we discover additional information next to the Name Variants, namely a list of reported Uses. These data provide a number of possible contexts in which we might encounter Asafoetida. Apart from its use in medicine, Asafoetida is used in food, in spiritual cures and as an essential oil.

Moreover, above the Name Variants we can find a text description about the plant genus and a photo, both resulting from linking our Time Capsule data to DBpedia linked open data. DBpedia informs us that the Asafoetida plant genus originates from Central Asia. This makes the historical use of Asafoetida in European pharmacy all the more interesting, because it would have required an intercontinental supply chain.

Figure 2

The information from DBpedia is corroborated by the integrated data in Time Capsule, as visualized in the map on the same page with results (see figure 3, below). Apart from some expected locations in Europe, and one undefined pointer in the Dutch Caribbean, we also see one location pointer in India, where we would expect a Natural Distribution location, i.e. location of plant origin mentioned in our botanical specimen data.

At this stage, we need to explore in more detail the Asian connection that we came across, and investigate whether we can discover any additional information about the complex commercial trajectory of Asafoetida in the past.

Figure 3

Step 3

To do so, we can use once more the query Asafoetida to browse in the Cargo & Trade tab. This is another part of the faceted search in the Time Capsule platform that allows browsing and search of information related to cargo carried by the ships of the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century. In this case, we want to investigate whether Asafoetida is found in any of these cargo records, as a trade item. The results are illustrated below in figure 4.

The green leaf next to the cargo icon in the search bar indicates that we are indeed dealing with a vegetable substance, namely a cargo item classified as a natural, plant substance. The query result shows 61 journeys where Asafoetida was part of the cargo. We know this result to be somewhat inaccurate, because journeys are sometimes listed more than once if more than one departure/arrival location is mentioned in the original data (e.g. a journey departing from Kharg in Persia is listed twice, once departing from Kharg and once from Persia).

Figure 4

When analyzing all 61 results, it becomes clear that most ships carrying Asafoetida follow one of two routes: either within the South-East Asian region, where only the place of destination is a Dutch settlement, or between South-East Asia and the Dutch Republic. In other words, the Trade & Cargo results provide convincing data for further analysis of Asafoetida’s main supply route. The substance was apparently purchased in a region not controlled by the Dutch (India), then shipped to a Dutch emporium (usually Sri Lanka, or Batavia), and then shipped to the Dutch Republic.

Details of one of these 61 journeys, as illustrated in figure 5 (below), departing from the Coromandel coast in India to Jaffna on Sri Lanka on 31 August 1767, reveal that this is an example of the South-East Asian trade route described above. The ship carried, among other things, an amount of 167 pounds of Asafoetida.

Figure 5

Step 4

We can now try to determine to what extent there was demand for this substance, not by browsing, but by using the Query Machine (second tab, see figure 1). The Query Machine implements, on the Time Capsule interface, the part where the user may form ad hoc RDF SPARQL queries, using a user-friendly query wizard. In the Query Machine we formulate the custom query: “List All Reference Source(s) that mention Asafoetida” (see figure 6, below).

The system now gives six results, all of them from pharmacopoeia references, among which two editions of the Pharmacopoeia of Amsterdam (1636 and 1660). These results indicate that apothecaries were supposed to use Asafoetida in Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. Since we know that the pharmacopoeia of Amsterdam was the official guide in many cities, our expectation is supported that both supply and demand were substantial.

Figure 6

About the search results

In this example we jumped from one tab to another, using the results acquired at each step as input to extend our search strategy and knowledge about our main subject. In the process, we stumbled on deficiencies that inevitably show up in the data, but we never reached a dead end.

Of course, the heterogeneous breadcrumbs we pieced together do not constitute a complete narrative about the history of Asafoetida. There are many more dimensions than can currently be traced in our system, such as the various Uses we came across, other than as a medicinal substance. But the fact that these bits and pieces could be found within one system has helped us. It allowed us to rapidly assemble very different kinds of information in a way that sustains the intuitive strategy of the researcher.

It also showed connections that were not in the original data sources, and hence would not have surfaced if a researcher had sifted through the individual data sources manually. In that way, the Time Capsule system provides a substantial improvement of the researcher’s digital toolkit, allowing him to save time while retaining an exploratory search strategy, and to stay in command of the research process, while outsourcing time-consuming parts to a digital search mechanism.