Humans constantly seek to connect facts or ideas together to form a more fully understood and cohesive form of knowledge. In the study of the Humanities, connecting together such facts and ideas in novel ways can uncover the answers to questions theretofore unasked. One of the most natural ways for humans to effectively join ideas is by creating a visual outline of the connections between them. Due to the way humans evolved as nomadic creatures, the most intuitive way for that to be done is through a map. In other words, humanity has always existed within the world, maps and the state of human being are inherently intertwined. For this reason geomapping is a extremely powerful tool for expressing such connections which has only recently come to be implemented heavily in the study of the Humanities. Geomapping allows scholars in the field of the Humanities to tie facts or observations about a specific time and space to a map that can display how they are connected by those attributes more fully than previous attempts at such endeavors. In some respects, said techniques will create new avenues of thought about a topic that would not have been able to be accessed through any other means.
Jo Guldi, in an online article What is the Spatial Turn?, explains clearly why geospatial scholarship is such an effective tool for the Humanities. This development in the Humanities came about in the time between 1880 and 1960 when humans began to cultivate a better picture of the world and scholars started to reflect “on our nature as beings situated in space”.1 For when one ends up at a certain destination, the way to know how that occurred is to look back from whence one came. If and when that doesn’t work, the only other option is to view a map. Using geospatial means, scholars can do just that, and it is especially useful in finding new answers when they are examining a question that has been posed and responded to many times before.
One such academic who has put geospatial techniques to use in a meaningful way is Edward L. Ayers, where in Mapping Time, he reexamines the decades following the Reconstruction after the American Civil War to the start of the Great Migration, from about 1880-1910. He begins by noting that for the most part, scholarship of these decades has been meager and insufficient, with the effect that there is a bare gulf on the timeline of African American history in the era.2 Due to the lack of historical work on the period, Ayers had to gather first hand information on the subject. With this uninterpreted information he was able to pick his own means of displaying it, which he did using GIS images to display how certain elements changed over those years.
In doing so, he was able to effectively show a few things in his short paper, such as though there was no mass migration of African Americans out of the South, there was migration within it. Many African Americans redistributed themselves, and interestingly, but not necessarily surprisingly, his maps make it easy to see that they grouped together. Additionally, he clearly and unmistakably showed the astonishing correlation between the rates of black landownership and lynching in the newly freed South.
Another scholar who has done much to utilize geomapping in historical terms is Anne Kelly Knowles. She has worked on multiple geomapping projects, including examining the Battle of Gettysburg and the Holocaust. Her work on the Battle of Gettysburg focused heavily on the geographic aspects of the battlefield, using past maps and historical data, she was able to recreate the scene of the field as it would have been seen by General Robert E. Lee. In doing so, she was able to show why General Lee made the decisions he made in a more effective manner than previous scholars’ attempts had been able to.3
In her more recent work on the Holocaust, in tandem with other academics, she was able to use the wealth of information left by the Germans to reconsider the narrative of concentration camps. Their results showed that, among other things, concentration camps were much more fluid in changing their design and enterprise than they were originally suggested and planned to be. By gathering as much data as possible, depicting it in a plentitude of ways, Knowles and her colleagues were able to shine new light on a subject that has been extensively and exhaustingly studied. One should note that Knowles and her team were careful to ask questions that could be answered by the data available. This is especially important in examining such sensitive topics; scholars should be vigilant in attempting to not quantify immeasurable variables, such as pleasure or pain.4
What both of these scholars relied on heavily is maps from the past, something that is necessary for all those in the field of historical geomapping. The Rumsey collection is one public source that facilitates this need.5 One can secure a historical map from their database, then by using Google Earth with its georeferencing tool, they can go on to place the map over the up to date geography to examine similarities and differences. While most are two dimensional, there are a few historical topographic maps on the website which can be paired with supplied software from the Rumsey collection’s website that represents them three dimensionally and overlays them on the modern topography that allows for the same method of scrutinization.6
The maps that are three dimensional contain more data, and are therefore more useful to anyone using them. So it can be assumed, or at least hoped, that it is only a matter of time until Google Earth will employ a three dimensional schematic to enable the same analyses. It does not go without mention that there are websites that offer georeferenced topographic maps, but in their two dimensional form they are not intuitively geared toward the same types of historical scholarship.7 One historical application that may be possible because of a three dimensional Google Earth would be to visually display how land area has changed due to sea-level variations over time. Due to the fact that sea level has been rising since before recorded history, enriched knowledge of which areas of earth were once above water could offer insight as to where to pursue archaeological excavation with regard to the study of the Humanities.
Employing all these techniques can show those studying the maps what has changed and how people from the past may have seen or imagined the world. Understanding how those in the past perceived the world can suggest why they might have made the decisions they did. Furthermore, by comprehending why someone did what they did, we can better know how to prevent or enable those choices to be made again. Conversely, for those making maps, keeping a close eye on how people interpret maps can guide their attempts at creating the most relevant and useful maps for their target audience.
- Jo Guldi, “What is the Spatial Turn?” and “The Spatial Turn in History” / Scholars’ Lab, University of Virginia Library, 2009/10 http://spatial.scholarslab.org/spatial-turn/what-is-the-spatial-turn/
- Edward L. Ayers, “Mapping Time,” in M. Dear, J. Ketchum, S. Luria, and D. Richardson, eds., Geohumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place, pp. 215-225. 2011. London: Routledge.
- Knowles, Anne Kelly. 2008. “What Could Lee See at Gettysburg?” In Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship (ESRI Press): 235 – 265.
- Knowles, Anne Kelly, Time Cole, and Albert Giordano. Chapter 1 “Geographies of the Holocaust” and Chapter 2 “Mapping SS Concentration Camps”. Geographies of the Holocaust. Indiana U, 2014. Print.