You are here

Mapping the unmapped: digital annotation of premodern geographies

Chiara Palladino

University of Leipzig

This paper shows how semantic annotation in digital environments and GIS services can contribute to the study of premodern geographies, with particular regard to spatial narrative and conceptualizations of space.

Premodern geographies are non-mapped by definition, as they belong to a historical period when cartography was more related to philosophical and mathematical research (Brodersen 2003; Janni 1984). Maps and diagrammatic representations certainly document some aspects of the premodern conceptualization of the world. Spatial narrative, however, is extremely important: because of its pragmatic purpose of helping to navigate across the landscape, the description of space in premodern societies had to be expressed with systematic linguistic patterns, and according to commonly recognized cultural models (Thiering and Geus 2014).

Because of this systematic character, spatial narrative is feasible through several types of analysis with computer-aided methods (Palladino 2016). Annotation is currently one of the best ways to retrieve systematic information from written sources, such as the usage of different units of distance, the types of orientation references used to navigate, and the cultural dependency of landmarks. Annotations create a source-dependent dataset, which can then be investigated in several ways, such as network analysis or mapping through GIS applications (Barker et al. 2016).

We tested the impact of semantic annotation performed in digital environments to investigate whether the process of directly annotating the source could contribute a better understanding of its conceptualization of space. This experiment was performed on several Greek and Roman sources, such as Agatharchides, Strabo, Ovid, Dionysius Periegetes, Arrian, and Homer. We annotated, georeferenced and classified the places mentioned in the source, according to the semantic roles attributed to them by the source itself (e.g. concepts such as ‘boundary’, ‘danger’, but also general categories like ‘island’, ‘promontory’); we also used event annotation to retrieve the specific textual patterns identifying peculiar components of spatial narrative (e.g. distance estimates).

The dataset so obtained was then imported into various GIS applications, to test different visualization options emphasizing certain aspects of the space as described in the source, such as the function of certain place types in the orientation process, or the projection of specific cultural concepts onto certain locations. Moreover, we experimented with network analysis to reveal certain types of patterns, such as itineraries by land or by sea, their functions in the narrative, and the impact of periplographic sources on the author’s view of the world.

GIS mapping is still important when dealing with non-mapped geographies, as it bridges an important cognitive gap between premodern conceptions of space and our modern, cartographic navigation system. Although GIS cannot cover every single aspect of spatial narrative, it can be useful as it introduces context in the annotation, and it makes certain details explicit which words cannot, thereby making certain aspects more immediately understandable. Combined with semantic annotation, it can also be extremely useful for pedagogical purposes; a G.I.S. approach makes it possible to visualize the ethnic distribution and provenance of armies, the chronological distribution of artifacts, and the evolution of narrative through space.

Whereas annotation is a trivial task from the technical viewpoint, it requires solid philological knowledge and experience of the culture which has generated a specific document or source. In other words, everyone can fruitfully use annotation and geospatial visualization tools with minimum technical skill, but they require strong familiarity with the Classical culture and languages, thereby empowering traditional scholarly activities, such as close reading, data abstraction, and linguistic analysis, at a variety of levels.

Session/Panel Title

Geospatial Classics: Teaching and Research Applications of GIS Technology

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy