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The so-called spatial turn in the humanities represents an awareness of the significant role that space plays in human behavior and cultural development. Geographical space is not just a passive setting for human action but rather the medium for the development of culture. However, all the expressions of human culture are not only related to the dimension of space, but also time. Even if handling spatial and temporal information together is challenging, it appears evident that in order to understand the humanities we need to move towards a concept of space-time. The technology that permits to face this challenge and lies at the heart of the spatial turn is GIS (Geographical Information System). Broadly speaking, this tool is a powerful software using space-time data to manage and visualize information within a spatial and temporal context. This ability has attracted considerable interest from humanists and recent years have witnessed the use of GIS to several projects in the humanities.

The Visualizing Medieval Places project, for example, aims to geospatially and temporally visualize thousands of toponyms appearing in a large corpus of ancient French texts. In order to deal with the large number of place names harvested from nearly 550 medieval texts, the authors exploited GeoTemCo, a web-based application to visualize data under geospatial and temporal aspects. The main strength of this tool, however, is to allow the comparative exploration and analysis of the topological dataset provided. Through an intuitive GUI, the user can set different thresholds to filter out those locations that are affected by a high geospatial or temporal uncertainty.


GeoTemCo interface

The visualization of places affected by spatial and temporal vagueness is one of the main problems that the GIS community has to face. As the authors stress, the problem of visualizing uncertainty becomes even more pronounced when it comes to data from medieval French texts. In fact, the toponyms found in these books refer often to multiple places or to geographical regions no longer existing on contemporary maps. Moreover, the representation of such locations in the time dimension could present even more arduous problems, like the change of boundaries over time or the expression of dates in ambiguous formats (e.g. “between 1095-1291”).

The paper presents a novel approach to depict both spatial and temporal uncertain information on a GIS. With the use of GeoTemCo, the spatial vagueness is encoded with a mixture of transparent regions, shapes and texture in such a way that the visualization of the ancient locations is clear and intuitive. In addition, GeoTemCo also manages uncertainty in the time dimension: fuzzy temporal data are represented on a timeline with different saturation levels encoding for different degrees of certainty. The results of the Visualizing Medieval Places project will allow students and researchers to comparatively visualize European locations during the Middle Ages with the use of a simple web-based application.

Another successful experiment implementing a GIS to visualize ancient locations is reported in Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships. The aim of this project is to exploit GIS techniques to analyze the Catalogue of Ships appearing in the second book of the Iliad in order to draw a map of kingdoms and cities of ancient Greece. The Catalogue is a precise list of the 29 contingents of the Achaean expedition, together with nearly 190 locations from which the ships came.


Catalogue of Ships from the second book of the Iliad

The real purpose of the Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships project is to understand how Homer could accurately list so many toponyms all over Greece without the use of any map. One of the most acknowledged theories states that the Catalogue reflects the actual itinerary that the author of the Iliad followed throughout the Hellenic continent. To check whether this assumption is reliable or not, researchers made use of GIS analysis to trace Homer’s hypothetical journey around ancient routes and early Greek urban areas. In particular, this study involved the use of two web-based tools: Neatline and Pleiades. The former is an annotation framework developed by the Scholar’s Lab at the University of Virginia that permits the visualization of narrative sequences on an interactive map. The latter is an open source database for ancient sites that allows sharing and mapping of geographical information about concerning historical locations. By combining the use of these two tools with “least-cost path” GIS analysis, the authors were able to map most of the locations mentioned in the Catalogue and draw the hypothetical route that Homer may have followed. Furthermore, the results of the Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships project could also assist archeologists in the localization of undiscovered archeological sites. In fact, whenever the position of a location is uncertain, the analysis tools exploited by researchers may provide reliable geographical information to help identify this site.


Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships: part of the hypothetical route

The fundamental role that Geographical Information Systems have on spatial humanities is not limited to the visualization of places appearing in ancient literary works. Humanists can also use information from official documents, files, and maps to explore, for example, the evolution of a specific urban area in time. This is the main purpose of the Atlanta Map Project of the Emory University’s Robert W. Woodruff Library, where topographers, librarians, and political scientists joined their efforts to build an interactive map of the city Atlanta from the late 1920s to the early 1950s. In order to visualize the geography of a changing city, researchers extracted and digitalized the information from atlases, maps and also funeral home records. Subsequently, a geocoder has been used to assign addresses and other topographical data into a location plotted on a map. Thanks to this project, researchers could use GIS analysis to map in space and time all of the 250000 building footprints in Atlanta and explore the evolution of this city.

All of the three mentioned papers demonstrate the potential of Geographical Information Systems in providing new perspectives on humanistic topics. However, what is evident from the three discussed abstracts is the capability of GIS in satisfying the needs of projects with completely different purposes. In particular, the first two projects make use of GIS to visualize toponyms of ancient literary works, while the Atlanta Map Project solely focuses on documents of the 20th century. It is even more evident that the three mentioned projects deal with completely different spatial scales: while Visualizing Medieval Places and Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships aim to analyze locations all over Europe, the third project is focused on the examination of a single urban area. Finally, the flexibility of Geographical Information Systems may permit to combine different analysis techniques to solve come complex tasks. For example, the vagueness visualization method described in the first paper could be implemented in the Mapping Homer’s Catalogue of Ships project to better visualize Hellenic sites whose location is uncertain.

In conclusion, the discussed projects are just three examples showing the revolutionary potential of GIS for the humanities. From the online mapping of ancient places to the analysis of geospatial and temporal data, we are more aware than ever of the role that Geographical Information Systems will play in the future of the humanities.










D.J. Bodenhamer, et al. The Spatial Humanities. GIS and the Future of Humanities Scholarship, Indiana University Press, 2010.