How GIS is Used to Understand History

Mark Altaweel


Historical events are increasingly understood within geospatial contexts, where key events, circumstances, and reasons as to why given outcomes occurred are interpreted using GIS. As an example, historical geography is one area that has applied GIS to understand outcomes of battles, why cities were built in given locations, and using ancient technologies to understand length and difficulty of travel at different times of the year.[1]

Visualizing History Using GIS

These examples demonstrate how GIS has transformed the field of history so that our understanding of historical events is better contextualized. One recent example includes studying Roman harbors in the Mediterranean Sea.[2] Here, we know trade was vital to the Roman Empire; however, journeys across parts of the Mediterranean would have been difficult during certain times of the year, as winds and other factors vary. Therefore, GIS could be used as a forecasting tool to determine likely routes of shipping lanes in the past, where discovered shipwrecks and amphora, or cargo carried by ancient ships, are used to validate these route estimates.

Sailing times from Rhodes (Ialysos or Kameiros), derived using an anisotropic surface. From: Leidwanger, 2013.
Sailing times from Rhodes (Ialysos or Kameiros), derived using an anisotropic surface. From: Leidwanger, 2013.

Teaching History Using GIS

Teaching history now is made easier by visualizing to classrooms and students places mentioned and GIS analysis could be used to provide students with historical awareness, such as how far armies traveled and the types of terrain they encountered.[3] One area where GIS has been more recently used in understanding the past has been reconstructing ancient sites or places so that one can visualize in 3D and understand how individuals experience cityscapes or landscapes in the past as they walked through them. This includes understanding Maya architecture and landscapes.[4] This particular project used Web3D GIS and a customized tool called QueryArch3D. For historians, these tools offer a unique way to understand the past by reconstructing it using available historical or archaeological data.

Using GIS Tools to Map History

This Smithsonian short video shows how Anne Kelly Knowles, American Ingenuity Award winner, uses GIS tools to map out history.

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[1] For examples of how history is understood using GIS, see:  Knowles, Anne Kelly, and Amy Hillier, eds. 2008. Placing History: How Maps, Spatial Data, and GIS Are Changing Historical Scholarship. 1st ed. Redlands, Calif: ESRI Press.

[2] For a recent publication on this topic, see:  Leidwanger, Justin. 2013. “Modeling Distance with Time in Ancient Mediterranean Seafaring: A GIS Application for the Interpretation of Maritime Connectivity.” Journal of Archaeological Science 40 (8): 3302–8. doi:10.1016/j.jas.2013.03.016.

[3] For information on how GIS has been used in teaching history, see:  Milson, Andrew J., and Marsha Alibrandi, eds. 2008. Digital Geography: Geospatial Technologies in the Social Studies Classroom. International Social Studies Forum. Charlotte, NC: IAP/Information Age Pub.

[4] For more information on a recent project looking at historical understanding of places from the Maya period, see:  von Schwerin, J., H. Richards-Rissetto, F. Remondino, G. Agugiaro, and G. Girardi. 2013. “The MayaArch3D Project: A 3D WebGIS for Analyzing Ancient Architecture and Landscapes.” Literary and Linguistic Computing 28 (4): 736–53. doi:10.1093/llc/fqt059.

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About the author
Mark Altaweel
Mark Altaweel is a Reader in Near Eastern Archaeology at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, having held previous appointments and joint appointments at the University of Chicago, University of Alaska, and Argonne National Laboratory. Mark has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Masters and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago’s Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.