GIS, Google Earth, and Spatial Humanities at DH@Guelph 2016

This May I had the chance to attend Digital Humanities workshop held at the University of Guelph. A full week of seminars on various topics presented me with my first foray into the world of digital humanities. Out of the list of seminars on offer, I opted for Spatial Humanities: Exploring Opportunities in Humanities, which was to give me an introduction into mapping and the use of technology in creating interactive, rich, and informative maps.

DH@Guelph Summer Workshops 2016 Poster

Mapping and the Changing Attitudes of Humankind

We say how an image speaks more than 1,000 words. Now imagine the power of maps: it becomes obvious, how much better spatial information can be displayed as they can include visual information and textual legends. For example, we can measure distance to evaluate the relationships between two points.

10th cent. Map of Egypt after Ibn Ḥawqal in his Ṣurat outlining the country in the concept of the then period (el-Daly 2005:fig. 2)

Maps also can tell stories and, thus, speak about the tastes and attitudes of the culture, which produced this map. Our facilitator told us to imagine the world as we read it in the Lord of the Rings (a book, with which most of us were familiar) and think about the many places mentioned within it. Immediately, Mordor comes to mind with its frightening Mount Doom. Then I can recall the cute houses of the Shire and the mighty cliff side of Minas Tirith. While we were thinking about this, she loaded a website, which featured an interactive map of Middle Earth. Upon this map then, she showed us, how we can walk in the shoes of Frodo all the way from the Shire to Mordor – right on our own computer!  This was the amazing work of the “Lord of the Rings” Project, which integrated the trilogy right into the map complete with text excerpts and more.

Tracing the amazing journey of Frodo and Sam on a Map (© Lord of the Rings Project)

Having reaffirmed the hidden power behind maps, we were given a brief introduction to coordination systems and their use within Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Because the earth is not exactly flat, there are various projections, which exist depending on the mapping system used. We had to be aware of this before going on in our learning.

Google Earth and the World in Your Hands

Within my own research, I have used Google Earth before to get a closer look at archaeological sites. Of course, many people use Google Earth to visit up close and personal many famous landmarks around the world.

Visiting the Famous Pyramids on the Giza Plateau on © Google Earth

Within the workshop, we were given an introduction to create not only our own points of interest, but also overlay images on top of the map. We were given old municipal fire hazard maps from the early 20th century and were to overlay these on top of the modern city. This at once allowed us to see, how exactly the city has changed. We took this further, adding landmarks of our own interest. Were one to develop this further, we could create entire ‘maps’ of ancient Egypt, where if you click on a site on Google Earth, you could see the various ground plans of what has survived and much more. I ended up discovering a Google Earth file from the Digital Karnak Project, which loaded this famous temple right into my Google Maps.

Exploring Karnak using the model by the Digital Karnak Project (© UCLA & Google Earth): a specific time period can be adjusted using the slider (A) and clicking on a bubble provides further information (B).

With this interactivity in mind (and great interest for the scholar), I saw their reconstruction straight in Google Maps and could adjust the slider to change the time period I was in (A in the image). I could see, what Karnak looked like in the time of the 12th Dynasty, when it was just several generations old, or in the 30th Dynasty, when the large enclosure wall that we know of today was finally added. All this happened right in front of my eyes and I quickly saw, how the temple developed over time, better than any textbook could explain. For the Egyptologist, more data could be inputted in the surrounding landscape, e.g. excavation details with updated maps to distribution maps of archaeological objects. The potential is huge.

Tracing Hänsel and Gretel Digitally

Once we were familiar with the concepts of GIS and the power behind Google Earth, we were given portable GPS units along with our choice of illustrated children books. Having to choose a story, we were to come up with a way to render the story by means of a map. My group partner and I chose the lovely story of Hänsel and Gretel and we were going to trace their journey into the forest and arrival at the witch’s house. So, our group then left our classroom and we did a 20 minute walk to the Arboretum on campus.

Following the bread crumbs in the U of Guelph’s Arboretum

Along the way, we took several readings with our GPS unit, imagining that we were the protagonists in the story and were on our journey. We quickly became familiar with the use of these units and also learned about their limitations (e.g. the readings could vary depending on where you were standing, etc.). After returning to the classroom with this new data in hand, we downloaded the GPS data points and then imported them, edited, into the GIS software, ArcGIS, with a base map of a satellite image of Guelph. Just as the researchers had done with the Lord of the Rings project, so too did we have the barebones of a Hänsel and Gretel map!

We took in this week of learning with great anticipation and walked away with a greater understanding of the importance of digital humanities in our field. There is great potential and I look forward to learning much more in the near future – perhaps there will even be workshops right here in Toronto!

Further Reading:

To get a taste of the full plate of offerings of workshops that happened at the University of Guelph, see here. You may also want to look at the DHSI at the University of Victoria, which offers a certificate in digital humanities – see here.


I am also working on a blog that introduces some exciting digital projects in Egyptology. Stay tuned.

Many thanks to the organizers of DH@Guelph for a highly educational week of workshops.


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