May 2007
Socializing Cyberinfrastructure: Networking the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Patricia Seed, University of California-Irvine


Several projects have begun to advance this perspective. The history of geographic exploration in the United States has benefited from some early forays into 3D representation. Two websites show the elevation of the mountains that Lewis and Clark had to cross in order to reach the Pacific in the republic’s early years.2

But we have the potential to accomplish much more with these same tools; to visualize the landscape in which the historically decisive battles of Culloden, Gettysburg, and Cuzco occurred. In each case, terrain played a crucial role: the boggy marsh contributed to the Highlander’s defeat in 1746; the ridges around Gettysburg that allowed Union forces to survive until reinforcements arrived; and the steep, rocky slopes above Cuzco that nearly allowed the Incas victory over Spaniards in Peru (1533).3 Military campaigns would also benefit from such an approach. Even a single static 3D image of what the Spartans saw as they approached a Greek camp for example, allows a viewer to grasp the difficulties that battle would entail.

Such three-dimensional maps can enhance understanding and appreciation of the role that terrain and other aspects of the natural world have played in history. Providing a web forum for such images, even without a particular historical textbook or narrative, would enhance appreciation of the extraordinary as well as the seemingly ordinary human achievements in the past.

While the goal of adding topography to historical maps lies within reach, another, equally extensive use of maps among historians presents a separate set of challenges. Acquainting readers with little known places is another widespread practice of mapping that focuses on a more limited and static goal.

To try to convey a sense of uncommon geographic places, history authors usually introduce an initial map into their printed works. In North America and Great Britain, authors have observed this custom for at least a century.4 But the location of the map presents too much information too early. Encountering a novel place halfway through the text, a reader must flip to the front and then continually switch back and forth as more and more unusual names appear. This singularly annoying and time consuming activity hinders comprehension of the historical story. Most people simply abandon the effort at this point and ignore the remaining strange names and locations. As a result, readers often finish the text with a rough idea of where an episode took place but lack understanding of its immediate geographical environment. While research has long established that combining maps with narratives improves understanding and memory of both, familiarity with world geography and environments remains a casualty of this standard presentation.5

A recent attempt to remedy this annoying flipping can be found at www.gutenkarte.org. Gutenkarte has created a novel way of improving the identification of places in texts. Taking freely available e-texts from Gutenberg, it has added a flat map that pops up when a place name in the text is clicked. Identifying locales in the book of Genesis, for example, helps readers understand where important moments occurred.6 Genesis mentions “the vale of Siddim, which is the salt sea” and Gutenkarte illustrates it on a map.

While an improvement in integrating maps within a traditional text, the Gutenkarte’s current interface focuses entirely on the map. Once having opened a map, the interface leads to exploring other places on the map. Returning to read the text remains awkward. Thus the goal of full interaction between story and map, leading to the desired integration of geographic and historical learning, remains unfulfilled. While pop-up maps can readily be merged into electronic texts, the reverse approach attempted by Gutenkare, incorporating a complex story into a map, remains a significant, unsolved challenge.

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Reference this article
Seed, P. "Flat Maps in a 3D World: Visualizing the Past," CTWatch Quarterly, Volume 3, Number 2, May 2007. http://www.ctwatch.org/quarterly/articles/2007/05/flat-maps-in-a-3d-world/

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