Blog Post

Doing History from the “Skies”

Doing History from the “Skies” (or: how I dropped medieval coins for Satellite images) 


When I was an undergraduate, one of the most dreaded requirements for history majors was the department’s Latin test. Like many of my friends, I avoided Latin in high school, and chose instead (mildly successfully) to learn French. Yet when I entered college, my professors insisted that for any aspiring historian, reading skills in Latin were indispensable. The undergraduate curriculum in history also required students to learn palaeography (hand-writing), diplomatics (critical analysis of physical documents), and numismatics (analysis of coins). I learned to decipher fifteen and nineteenth-century handwriting, how to date medieval documents, and how to understand tiny symbols on Roman coins. 

As an early modern historian, I rely on my paleography skills during my regular trips to the archives, but I haven not touched a medieval decree or a Roman coin in years (or read anything in Latin). Instead, the projects I have worked on in the past two years required different skills. Digital humanities offer exciting ways to approach historical research, and in reflecting on my undergraduate experience, I realized how little training I had received in such methods. 


At Emory’s Center for Digital Scholarship, I am part of a team working on Creating Interactive Historical Visualizations of Atlanta. The goal is to publish an interactive website where visitors can explore 1930 Atlanta, engage with data, and use the material for their own inquires. Being the only historian in the team, I went to local archives to analyze municipal development plans from the 1920s and 1930s. One of my objectives was to find out when certain neighborhoods of Atlanta were developed. Often, the fastest way for me to locate early twentieth century plots or neighborhoods was to just use Google Maps or compare landscape features from the archival plans with current satellite images. 

I used a similar strategy when working on the Power of Attorney (Oaxaca)project, which maps indigenous peoples’ interactions with the imperial Spanish court system in colonial Mexico. For this project, we worked with seventeenth and eighteenth-century legal documents (where all the paleography classes proved useful)). One difficulty was to identify colonial villages and locate them in present day south-west Mexico). To determine which village the documents were referring to, I used Google Street View to “drive” through many of the Mexican towns, looking for old cemeteries or churches that could give a hint as to how old the town might be.

For my own research project, I map colonial settlements along the Mississippi River. Over the centuries, the river changed its course several times, but the most recent changes are clearly discernable using Google Earth’s satellite view. This has been an immense help for me while trying to pin down geographical coordinates for settlements and military posts I find referenced in eighteenth-century Spanish correspondence. 


An invitation:

Maybe some of you had similar experiences where you received “traditional” training but have not been introduced to methods in digital humanities.

If so, please feel free post below any experiences you had, websites you found useful, or articles that helped you engage with theories and methods in digital humanities. I would appreciate your comments and suggestions, and maybe some other readers would also like to follow your links. 


Thank you all in advance! 


No comments