DARMC: A GIS Approach to Mapping Ancient and Medieval History (review)

Michael McCormick, Leland Grigoli, Giovanni Zambotti, et al. Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations, Harvard University: 2014. Accessed 22 February 2014, http://darmc.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do

The fields of ancient and medieval history are inherently interdisciplinary. In recent years, scholars in the field have undertaken research that integrates these histories with archaeology, ecology, and epidemiology.[1] Additionally, the use of spatial analysis in the humanities has grown in frequency as barriers to entry for geographic information systems (GIS) software nave declined and more historians have engaged in creating visual representations of their research within and outside of the classroom.[2] The Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations (DARMC) unites these multi-disciplinary approaches to ancient and medieval history through the use of georeferenced data compiled from recent research in the field and imposed on a digital map.[3]

The Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilization is an online, interactive map that culminates from a number of collaborative efforts. The goal of the project, as stated on the website, is to make freely available the best materials for a GIS approach to mapping and spatial analysis of the ancient and medieval world between the years 1 and 1500 C.E. Michael McCormick, Frances Goelet Professor of Medieval History in Harvard University’s departments of History and Science of the Human Past, operates as the general editor for this project. McCormick’s team, ranging from graduate students and undergraduates to additional research specialists in a variety of fields, began the project in 2007. The web-based version was produced using ESRI’s ArcGIS software, which is increasingly taught in undergraduate and graduate university courses.[4] The DARMC project is funded in several ways, including: the Harvard Initiative for the Science of the Human Past, the Fund for Instructional Technology of the Provost of Harvard University, McCormick’s Distinguished Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Harvard University Tozier Award for visual representation of scientific data, and a National Endowment for the Humanities sub-award in collaboration with the Pleiades project at the Ancient World Mapping Center, Stoa Consortium, and the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World.

The DARMC team created the map layers by compiling data from a variety of primary documents and secondary research. On the DARMC website, the data sources and bibliographies are available for viewing. Under the “Bibliography” tab, the user can see that the creators used Zotero to compile a searchable database, enabling users to access bibliographical information for the sources.[5] Additionally, under the “Map Sources” tab, the user finds an extensive list of what sources the data was compiled from, and which team members contributed to the data. Several geodatabases, containing georeferenced data, are available for download under the “Data Availability” tab.

However, only some of the data is easily accessible in this manner. The remaining databases are available in Web Map Server (WMS) and Representational State Transfer (RST) formats, which require opening ESRI’s ArcMap program and connecting to the WMS or RST server to download data. Thus, while the data is available for download, much of it requires this additional step.

When the user selects the “Maps” tab, the default map shows the locations of Roman military forts and towers, accompanied by a data layer of areas within two days’ travel of roads, on ESRI’s shaded relief base map. There are four sections on the left-side panel that the user can choose: Roman and Medieval Civilization, Roman Empire, Medieval, and Historical Base map: Cassini France C18. Each section contains several sub-sections, in which the user can check or uncheck boxes to display or hide different data layers. The Roman and Medieval Civilization heading, for example, contains subsections for coin deposits, environment and health data, shipwrecks, and the archaeology of rats. In the Roman Empire section, subsections are thematically organized: culture and religion, economy, natural features, military fortifications, infrastructure, cities and settlements, roads and transportation, and provincial boundaries. The Medieval section is organized in a similar fashion: Anglo-Saxon sites, education (locations of universities), economy (locations of prominent fairs), Christianity and its institutions, direction of movement during the Crusades (1096-1254), centers of Islamic power between the seventh and fifteenth centuries, the movements and influence of Vikings from the seventh through tenth centuries, and medieval kingdoms and political boundaries.

If the user selects the data layer for archaeology of rats, a number of data markers appear on the map. These markers, whose icons are cross-shaped, signify a location where rats have appeared in primary sources or in recent archaeological finds. The rats’ locations cluster in Western Europe (primarily modern England, France, and Italy) and scatter throughout Central and Southern Europe, North Africa, and the Levant. When the marker is selected, a window appears and provides information about that particular piece of data. For example, there is a marker about 120km from Antioch (near modern Antakya, Turkey), in a town called Apamea. Between 500 and 650 C.E., twenty six rats were observed in a sewer. The comments on the data provide additional information about the respective ages of the rats. Based on the rat data offered here, the map does not reveal much. A majority of the instances of rat-finds occurred in Western Europe, and the data ranges from year 1 to 1500 C.E. The most reasonable conclusion that this data suggests is that rats certainly existed in Western Europe between 1 and 1500 C.E. Without any additional visual information, this map layer is not particularly useful.

One subset of map layers that is currently being compiled by the DARC team is that which constitutes the Islamic world. Currently, the only available data that can be used on this map includes the locations of Islamic cities and areas which came under Islamic authority through 750 C.E. The latter map layer shows these areas in different colors: orange indicates area acquired by the death of Mohammed in 632, purple for the area conquered under Abu Bakr (r. 632-634), green for areas conquered under Omar (r. 634-644), blue for areas conquered under Othman (r. 644-656) and Ali (r. 656-661), and red indicates areas conquered under the Umayyad Caliphate (r. 661-750). The user can infer, then, in which directions territorial conquest progressed under the early Islamic Caliphates.

The Islamic cities map layer, however, does not present a narrative. Instead, the user sees pink squares indicating cities under Islamic authority between the seventh and fifteenth centuries. When the user selects a specific city, a window appears that does provide information about when the city came under Islamic rule and whether or not it was a new city created by the new authorities. Unfortunately, this information is not visually represented. Adding a narrative or a timeline can make this map layer more useful. When both the Islamic Cities and Islamic Area subsections are selected, the user can see both when a region was conquered by the early Caliphates and which cities are located in those regions – thus, the user can infer when a city came under the authority of the Caliphate. Under the Umayyad Caliphate (r. 661-750), for example, the western Maghrib (North Africa) and al-Andalus (Spain) came under Islamic rule. The city of Tripolis, located in Modern Libya, was conquered by the Umayyads in 647 C.E. The user sees that it was conquered, because, according to the window that appears when Tripolis is selected, it was not a new city created by the Umayyads.

In terms of its practical application, DARMC offers an abundance of information readily available for other scholars’ use. The map may be useful for teachers looking to illustrate political boundaries, climate events, and archaeological finds for their students. However, the map has functional flaws. When a data marker is clicked, there is a link at the bottom of the window that appears which should enable the user to zoom to that location on the map. When this link was selected, the map disappeared. This occurred several times, with several zoom links. Additionally, a glitch occurred at another moment. From this point forward, any movement of the cursor moved the entire map. The Islamic Cities data layer became superimposed on sub-Saharan Africa. Refreshing the browser solved these problems in the moment, but the map returned to its default setting which highlighted the locations of Roman military structures.

DARMC is, above all, an innovative application of GIS methods and new research that incorporates history, archaeology, ecology, and other fields. The team has made their data and bibliography publicly available for those who wish to undergo further research, and the team frequently adds data layers, including precious metal deposits between 200 and 700 C.E. in the Roman and Medieval Civilization section. The DARMC team also consistently updates the website itself. In August 2014, the team made the user interface more intuitive and added the ability to print a map. The team clearly recognizes that this is a work in progress, but the DARMC project has expanded upon what existing atlases have to offer. DARMC provides a visual and spatial dimension to the textual data that the Pleiades project offers, and the DARMC maps feature a higher level of geographic accuracy and detail in a freely available digital format than Talbert’s Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.[6] The DARMC project clearly represents an emerging trend in the humanities: that which integrates accessible content with collaborative production.

[1] Recent scholarship in these fields includes: Michael McCormick, “Rats, Communications, and Plague: Toward an Ecological History,” in Journal of Interdisciplinary History vol. XXXIV, issue 1 (2003): p.1-25; Lester K. Little, ed. Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541-750 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Mario Jurišić, Ancient Shipwrecks of the Adriatic: Maritime Transport during the First and Second Centuries AD, BAR International Series no. 828 (Oxford: Archaeopress, 2000)

[2] Ruth Mostern and Elana Gainor, “Traveling the Silk Road on a Virtual Globe: Pedagogy, Technology, and Evaluation for Spatial History,” in Digital Humanities Quarterly vol.7 no. 2 (2013)

[3] Michael McCormick, Leland Grigoli, Giovanni Zambotti, et al. Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations (Harvard University: 2014) Accessed 22 February 2014

[4] ArcGIS Platform: Innovation through Geography. Accessed 22 February 2014, http://www.esri.com/software/arcgis

[5] Zotero. Accessed 22 February 2014. https://www.zotero.org/

[6] Pleiades, Ancient World Mapping Center, The Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, and The Stoa Consortium. Accessed 22 February 2015, http://pleiades.stoa.org/; Richard J.A. Talbert, Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000)

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