Verifying Ancient Roman History with GIS

Caitlin Dempsey


Can ancient events be verified with modern technology?  Caesar’s Gallic Wars recounts that more than a quarter of a million Helvetii resided in the Swiss Plateau.  Running low on food, the Helvetii, according to his memoir, invaded Gaul in 58 BCE.  Now, researchers are using GIS to test the veracity of those accounts.

Tom Whitley, an Assistant Professor of Archaeology at the University of Western Australia (UWA), used GIS to test population estimates and patterns of migration and war to see how the historical aspects known about the Gallic Wars measures up to geophysical evidence. Whitley is using historical account, ecological and archaeological data to develop a model of the economic system in place during that time, stating, ” “If we try to reconstruct what was going on from the archaeological data alone when we have just a very fragmentary record, we don’t know exactly how this mechanism is operating. So with computer simulation we can simulate different kinds of effects and what the results were.”

To understand war activity, Whitely is using geospatial technology to search for  archaeological signatures such as Roman riverfront fortifications.  Using untested techniques Whitely explains, “Some of the GIS modeling is intended to say where it is likely that the Romans would have been building these structures. Can we simulate what that past environment looked like where people were likely to have crossed and … go to those locations and see if we can find them?” Using  ground-penetrating radar, magnetometry and aerial photogrammetry, researchers will look for signs of Helvettii encampments.

Source: GIS technology verifies Caesar and Helvetii history

The Study

Whitley, Thomas G. (2013) From Historical Ecology to Prehistoric Economy: Modeling the Caloric Landscapes of the Past. In, From Field to Table: Historical Ecology of Regional Subsistence Strategies, D. Goldstein, J. Pournelle, and T. Foster (editors), Left Coast Press, California (in press).

Map of Caesar's campaign against the Helvetii, 58 BCE.
Map of Caesar’s campaign against the Helvetii, 58 BCE. Map: T. Whitley, 2013.


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About the author
Caitlin Dempsey
Caitlin Dempsey is the editor of Geography Realm and holds a master's degree in Geography from UCLA as well as a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) from SJSU.

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