Spatial Humanities Brings History to Life
Research in history, archaeology, literary theory, geography, cultural and religious studies, and other fields depends on analyzing many pieces of information relevant to specific topics.
However, researchers often cannot probe the spatial aspects of topics because there are no detailed maps of many sites — such as ancient empires, battlefields, and cities destroyed by natural disasters — that no longer exist or no longer look the same.
Improvements to geographic information systems (GISs), including better user interfaces for tools such as Google Earth, are beginning to change this, said Open University classical-studies lecturer Elton Barker.
As a result, humanities researchers are starting to look for new, advanced ways to use spatial information.
For example, they are using geographic and historical data to create maps that make it easier to visualize important events.
Map-based data could show the locations of ancient cities and trade routes, as well as illustrate population groups, religious influences, and other important items, noted Lancaster University digital-humanities reader Ian Gregory.
Literary theorists are even using such techniques to create maps of places from works of fiction.
This is the basis of a new field called spatial humanities.
"These technologies [let researchers] visualize information in terms of the spatial context in which it occurred," said Barker. "And we can look for patterns that are not obvious."
Building a Better Map
Urban planners and others have used advanced mapping tools since the 1960s and geographic historical information systems since about 1990. However, such tools were not as powerful or appropriate for use in the humanities as those used today in spatial humanities.
Spatial humanities is an interdisciplinary field that addresses the mutual influence of geographic and human-constructed space on society and culture, said David J. Bodenhamer, cofounder and codirector of the Virtual Center for Spatial Humanities, a multidisciplinary collaboration among several US universities.
Virtual-mapmaking systems start with information sources such as ancient texts.
In many cases, researchers must go through old books manually to geocode the text. However, researchers are also working on techniques and algorithms for processing large volumes of text automatically.
To render the chosen data, the systems use a software-mapping tool. Much of the analysis occurs on high-end computers. PCs typically handle the necessary display and rendering.
Tools Used in Spatial Humanities
The technology uses geospatial and Web 2.0 technologies, such as Google Earth. It lets researchers associate various concepts with geographic entities or spatial relationships and organize them in ways that show their importance.
Basic maps can't accommodate all elements that are important to understanding humanities-related issues.
Using techniques such as self-organizing or cognitive maps along with geographic maps helps users better understand and explore key concepts, Bodenhamer explained.
Self-organizing maps cluster information, keeping conceptually similar items close to each other.
Cognitive maps are graphical representations of facts with symbols indicating how different aspects of a given concept relate to one another.
Increasingly, Bodenhamer noted, humanities scholars are enhancing their maps with multimedia — like images and videos — to provide more useful information.
Technologies such as Google Earth let users embed maps with information from sources such as diaries, letters, photographs, and video that give users more perspective and flexibility in understanding spatial environments and their relationship to various humanities-related issues, he said.
He added that working with immersive approaches — such as using a cave automatic virtual environment (CAVE) to create 3D models of ancient cities — can make spatial data easier to understand.
The Open University's Barker, University of Birmingham lecturer Stefan Bouzarovski, and Oxford University professor Christopher Pelling are using the Google Books archive to create a map of the ancient world based on writings by the historian Herodotus.
This is part of the trio's Herodotus Encoded Space-Text-Imaging Archive (Hestia) project (www.open.ac.uk/Arts/hestia/).
Google Books is a service that searches the full text of books that Google has scanned, converted to text, and stored in a database.
Barker noted that he has already used the Google Books archive to show that cities within the ancient Greek and Persian empires were much more interconnected than previously thought.
Middlebury College researchers are using old battlefield maps to create an overall map of the US Civil War's Battle of Gettysburg that lets viewers see the scene from multiple perspectives.
In 2005, Bodenhamer cofounded the Virtual Center for Spatial Humanities, a collaboration among Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, West Virginia University, and Florida State University. The center seeks, among other things, to adapt geospatial technologies and develop platforms such as deep maps — maps overlaid with multiple levels of data — for use with humanities research.
The University of Virginia's Salem Witch Trials Documentary Archive and Transcription Project (http://etext.virginia.edu/salem/witchcraft/) is using spatial humanities to analyze records of complaints against women suspected of being witches in colonial America in 1692 and 1693 to determine why so many accusations occurred so rapidly.
University of Saskatchewan historian Geoff Cunfer used spatial humanities to correlate historical weather data and land-use patterns to determine the influence that plowing practices had in creating the 1930's US Dust Bowl.
Via its Digital Humanities Research Awards, Google has funded the Google Ancient Places project (http://googleancientplaces.wordpress.com/), which is working on techniques for manually and automatically encoding ancient texts with spatial information to improve humanities research.
Glimpsing the Future
Although spatial-humanities techniques hold great promise, they also face several challenges because they are expensive and difficult to learn, and can require complete and precise data that many scholars don't have, explained Bodenhamer.
However, said Lancaster University's Gregory, the need for tools to analyze the data is greater now that a massive amount of digital humanities-related content is available to scholars.
And going forward, the Open University's Barker said, these same tools could be applied to areas other than the humanities, such as analyzing news or looking for geographic trends.