Map Quests: Geography, Digital Humanities and the Ancient World

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Thousands of ancient sites can be downloaded and viewed in Google Earth via the Pleiades project, a free digital gazetteer.

In Roman Gaul, at a school of rhetoric within the city of Augustodunum (the modern city of Autun), there was a large map of the known world on display for students in a portico. The school eventually became damaged and fell into disrepair. Around 297/298 C.E., a man named Eumenius made a pitch to the Roman governor to allow him to rebuild the structure with his own money. His speech proclaimed the necessity for the map as an effective pedagogical tool, among other things:

In [the school’s] porticoes let the young men see and examine daily every land and all the seas and whatever cities, peoples, nations, our most invincible rulers either restore by affection or conquer by valor or restrain by fear. Since for the purpose of instructing the youth, to have them learn more clearly with their eyes what they comprehend less readily by their ears… (trans. Talbert).

It was as clear to Eumenius as it is to modern teachers that students respond well to visual aids. Much like today, it was easier for the students to understand the world and their place within it through a map.

Recently, Diane H. Cline provided insight into how the digitization of documents allows us all admission into the great library collections of the world. In this post, I want to take us a step farther into what Digital Humanities can do, in order to ask how the field allows us to contextualize texts, data and images spatially, through the use of maps. In particular, the use of GIS (Geographic Information Systems) in Digital Humanities has given us new tools with which to visualize the written word, but also to uncover relationships between various sources of information.

One of the great achievements within the field of classics was the publication of the print edition of the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World in September of 2000, which mapped the Greco-Roman world on a level never before seen. Those interested in maps of the ancient world were again recently riveted by the release of the atlas as an iPad app late last year. The work of the Classical Atlas Project that first undertook the atlas, in fact, continues on at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the form of the Ancient World Mapping Center. Here, teachers, students or interested web users can download free maps, find geography resources on the web, or (my personal favorite) create their own map—using the new Antiquity À-la-carte application.

Technology is changing the way we study and preserve texts and artifacts. Visit the BAS Scholar’s Study: Digital Humanities and the Ancient World for more articles on this emerging field.

As the new director of the Ancient World Mapping Center, Ryan Horne, informed me, À-la-carte allows users to explore all of the different projects within the Linked Ancient World Data community. The beta version of À-la-carte also uses new maptiles produced by the AWMC. As Horne notes, “These are the first (and, as of now, only) geographically accurate base tiles of the ancient Mediterranean world and they are freely accessible for personal, academic and non-commercial use.”

The print edition of the Barrington Atlas is indubitably a seminal achievement, but in many ways it is a static monument. In other words, printed books are not changed on a day-to-day basis and do not facilitate collaboration with readers. In short: Print books are a monologue you pay for, whereas Digital Humanities are, when done correctly, a free dialogue.


Homepage map from depicting the over 34,000 places within the historical gazetteer of the ancient world.

One of the remarkable things about digital projects is that they live on as organisms that can transform, just as our world does. A prime example of this is the Pleiades project, a free digital gazetteer of ancient sites, which not only contains all the citations from the Barrington Atlas, but also adds new ones every day, along with links to textual references, images and web resources. Whereas the iPad Barrington Atlas has over 20,000 places, has over 34,000 places—and counting. Print publication marks the end of amendments to a research project until the next edition; however, digital projects can add, delete and edit in real time. More than that, they often invite viewers to contribute to the project as well.

Another digital project that is particularly innovative is the Orbis Project from Stanford University’s Walter Scheidel and Elijah Meeks. The site provides a geospatial model which allows users to explore and predict ancient travel times and their costs over land, sea and sand in the Roman Empire. Many have called it the Google Maps of the ancient world, but it is much more than that. I have my students create transport itineraries and use the site to explore how travel times changed over the course of the year.

Interested in maps of the ancient world? Explore atlases of the Biblical world and discover ancient geography in the BAS store.

The utility of historical geography in uncovering early Christian communities can also be seen in a number of projects currently on the web. Recently, the field of Syriac studies was transformed by the unveiling of Of special interest within this site is the Syriac Gazetteer, a geographical reference work that allows individuals to explore Syriac sites on the web. The site exemplifies something key to the success of any Digital Humanities project: collaboration. Digital projects have allowed endangered languages such as Syriac to become more visible, accessible and geographically understood. This is also the case for exciting projects in the field of Coptic studies, such as the Coptic Scriptorium recently funded by the NEH.

I also quite enjoy a site reconstructing ancient and medieval pilgrimage routes called The Walking Pilgrim. By taking texts, such as the so-called “Bordeaux Itinerary,” a fourth-century pilgrim itinerary, and visualizing them using maps, we can take advantage of an unprecedented level of interaction with ancient documents. In this example, we gain new insight into the plight of religious pilgrims on a broader scale.
Much like Eumenius standing before the governor, this post has been a panegyric for the humanities in our schools and in our lives. In the same manner that Roman students living in Gaul could be transported to the furthest reaches of the known world via a map that stood in the portico of their school, we too can allow everyone unprecedented access to the landscapes of the past through a digital medium. The difference is, while the students of the late Roman school could only view the map, today’s students can explore, interact with and contribute to the map.

Researchers at the UCSD’s Calit2 laboratory recently released the free BAS eBook Cyber-Archaeology in the Holy Land — The Future of the Past, featuring the latest research on GPS, Light Detection and Ranging Laser Scanning, unmanned aerial drones, 3D artifact scans, CAVE visualization environments and much more.

sarah-bondSarah E. Bond is an assistant professor of classics at the University of Iowa. She specializes in Roman law, epigraphy, Late Antiquity and Digital Humanities. She is currently a contributor to the U.S. Epigraphy Project (Brown University), a reviewer for the Pleiades project and principal investigator for her own digital project, which concerns cataloguing and mapping Roman voluntary associations. Her manuscript is currently under review, and concerns unseemly tradesmen in the Roman empire between the Republic and Late Antiquity. Follow her on Twitter @SarahEBond.

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1 Responses

  1. Dominic Asare says:

    I am Ghanaian who is trained to use GPS to map farm lands with a U.S funded n.g.o. I am interested what do I do?

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1 Responses

  1. Dominic Asare says:

    I am Ghanaian who is trained to use GPS to map farm lands with a U.S funded n.g.o. I am interested what do I do?

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