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What Difference Has Digitization Made?

Tom Elliott

ISAW / NYU

       The ‘digital turn’ in geography has brought marked changes in both research methods and scholarly communications to classical studies over the past forty years.  The transition to digital cartography and the introduction of computational spatial analysis have created new paths for the field as well as new challenges.  The paper offers a selective survey of this liminal period and its consequences.

       Data accuracy and geographic precision, combined with scale and frame-size, have always constrained map-makers, with implications for the cost, quality, and rhetorical effectiveness of their work.  The introduction of affordable geographic computing has not eliminated any of these factors, but it has significantly redeployed their particulars and their interrelations.  New capabilities – among them, recourse to a limitless color palette; seamless pan and zoom in on-screen maps; on-line access to satellite and aerial imagery; and easy combination of disparate datasets – have reset expectations both for the inclusion of maps in scholarly publications, and for the very nature of the publications themselves when they appear online.  Even so, these expectations are by no means always correct or complete.

      Geographic information systems have placed unprecedented analytical capabilities in the hands of historians and archaeologists.  Geospatial information structures and their attendant computational methods provide the capability to (among much else) analyze visibility of features in a landscape, to interrogate cost surfaces for estimating travel times, to construct Thiessen polygons for approximating the extent of linguistic or administrative regions, and more.  In such modes of research as these, our field is no longer so frustratingly dependent upon the interest, survival, and accuracy of human voices from the past.  Instead, we are better positioned to evaluate received testimony on independent terms, and now more than ever we are equipped to transcend silence in the historical record.

      Many laborious, formerly manual tasks in both the production of maps and their use are being facilitated by digital publications in novel forms.  The paper illustrates how digital gazetteers increasingly improve and accelerate the identification, disambiguation, and location of toponyms, moving us closer to a research environment in which both ancient and modern texts readily submit to automated geoparsing and subsequent spatial visualization or analysis.  Likewise, the assembly of data for a research project (whether formulated by an individual or a group) benefits as never before from texts, museum datasets, and other databases that have already brought their geographic aspects (for example, findspots and original locations) into harmony with one another via a common geographic reference work such as Pleiades.stoa.org.  

       In short, the key difference that digitization has brought is a transformative empowerment to address rewardingly a range and complexity of issues that could barely even be conceived before, let alone tackled in productive ways.  For the future, moreover, this empowerment is sure to gain further strength as digital technology continues to develop.   

Session/Panel Title

Mapping the Classical World since 1869: Past and Future Directions

Session/Paper Number

6.4

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