Failing to Map Historical Maps

Building off of Martha’s previous post, I’m going to discuss some challenges of mapping projects with old maps. Old maps pose challenges to digital projects. In particular, the spatial arrangements of many old maps don’t match modern day maps of the same area. A path made up of geographic coordinates (such as on Google Maps) is not guaranteed to be compatible with old maps. In addition, there is a fine line in many of these maps between maps and city views, especially in many early modern European prints.

One example of these map/city-view that is useful to think with is the woodcut of Rome from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

A full page spread image of Rome
A woodcut image of Rome from the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle

This woodcut image clearly shows Rome – in addition to the label (which I will expand a bit on later), there are many recognizable sites – the papal palace, the Castel Sant’Angelo, the Pantheon, and the Colosseum. It is not a simple city view – the geographic relation between these sites shows the general layout of the city. However, trying to plot a path (or even just points) on a georeferenced version of this map is not feasible.

Georeferencing warps the map image, trying to get it to fit the points on the image to relevant points in the real world. Sometimes this warping can be very extreme, especially for certain kinds of transformations:

The map is warped beyond recognition in the attempt to georeference the map.
Mid-process attempt to georeference Rome
The map is warped beyond recognition in the attempt to georeference the map.
Mid-process attempt to georeference Rome

The control points (which link the image to geographic points) on this map do not line up well, since the spatial arrangement of the map/woodcut image do not line up with their geographic locations. This image shows the difference between the points on the 1493 map and the present day map, shown as blue lines.

Rome map georeferenced with visible control points that don't line up with the historical map
Rome map and control points

Another problem with a map like the Nuremberg Chronicle woodcut is that we don’t know what all the landmarks are. There are many church structures, but only a few are labelled. In addition, there are features that seem to be missing – for example, it is difficult to distinguish Tiber Island on the woodcut, which is a major landmark. Furthermore, the scale of the buildings pose problems. It is relatively easy to use the center of the Pantheon as a point on a present day map, but where on the woodcut image is the “center” of the Pantheon? In all, attempting to georeference and plot points on a map such as the Nuremberg Chronicle woodcut image of Rome is frustrating, inaccurate, and ultimately provides no additional insight. In fact, the extreme warping of the image makes it more difficult to understand the and the data represented in relation to it.

My attempt to chart a path on the Nuremberg Chronicle map

The closest point is the Colosseum – nothing else lines up very closely at all (the path is supposed to go from the Colosseum to the Pantheon, to one side of the Ponte Sant’Angelo, to the Castel Sant’Angelo, to the Vatican). The result is not illuminating and does not contribute any new knowledge, and in fact doesn’t serve either purpose well; it is difficult to interpret the Nuremberg Chronicle map, and it is almost impossible to know which landmarks are denoted by the path.

The path of points through Rome does not line up with the location of those points on the Nuremberg map
A path through Rome on top of the Rome Nuremberg Chronicle

Can we trust the labels?

In the Nuremberg Chronicle, no, we can’t! Rome is clearly correct – the sites confirm the label. Other cities are like this, including, for instance, Krakow, which gives specific labels of a part of the city and reflects the city layout. However, for more minor cities, the Nuremberg Chronicle often uses the same woodcut for different cities.


In fact, the same woodcut is used for nine images (see below). These images include: Napoli, Perugia, Mantua, Ferrara, Damascus, Bena (I’m not sure what city this refers to), a German province (not sure about this one either), Spain, and Macedonia. While Italian cities may have similar styles, I cannot accept that Napoli, Damascus, Spain and Macedonia literally looked like these woodcuts. Therefore, not only do these images provide difficulties in terms of spatial alignment, but we also cannot always accept them at face value, because they may be no more than a generic representation of a city than a visual representation reflecting an actual cityscape.


The color woodcut images come from the digitized University of Cambridge Nuremberg Chronicle (CC BY-NC 3.0): (the page numbers are: Bena 80r, Damascus 23v, Ferrara 159r, Macedonia 275r, Mantua 84r, Napoli 42r, Germany? 284v, Perugia 48v, Spain 289v).

The woodcut image of Rome is from the digitized copy in Morse Library, Beloit College. Last accessed 16 October 2017.

RBMS/BSC Latin Place Names File provided help with place names.

Knowing That I Don’t Know: Asking Questions

As I near the end of my second term as a DHA, it is a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned from this experience so far. Since starting in September, I have learned, been exposed to, and experimented with a number of digital tools. Although the major tool I have been using in my work is ArcGIS, being part of the DHA team and Team Workhouse means that I learn more every week from the work other team members have been doing. However, perhaps more importantly than learning digital tools, I have learned the importance of communication and asking questions.

For teams like the DHAs and Team Workhouse, communication is crucial. Just like the game objects in Bard’s Unity project that needed to share information in order to function, people on teams also need to share information in order to function smoothly. Uncertainty about who is doing what is not efficient or productive for teams. A particularly important part of communication is asking questions. While I have learned a lot about digital tools these last two terms, I know that there is a lot that I still don’t know. While sometimes it can be productive to struggle through uncertainty to figure something out, other times the process can be greatly improved by a quick meeting or email exchange.

One example of this was when I was helping to migrate our website to a new page (you can see our current website here!). In particular, I was struggling with moving media (especially videos) over to the new site. I spent time looking through Reason’s documentation and trying to figure it out myself, but made very little progress on my problem. Finally, I talked to Doug Bratland, Web Content Specialist, part of Carleton’s Web Services Group. He was incredibly helpful and in just a half hour was able to fix the problems I had been working on. Not only did he solve the problems I was having, but he also took time to explain why I had been running into problems and make sure that I understood what he did to solve them. I came away from that meeting with not just solutions to the website issues, but also a deeper understanding of how Reason CMS works. If I had not asked for help and questions about the problems I had with the website, not only would it have taken much longer to fix, but I wouldn’t have learned as much about how it works. Although just one example from my two terms as a DHA, it nevertheless illustrates the importance of asking questions about things I don’t know. And although I have learned a lot about digital tools in the past two terms, there is still a lot I don’t know. So, I will need to keep asking questions.

Updates from the Workhouse: Mapmaking

A significant part of my work continues to be for Team Workhouse, including the work I did over winter break for Professor Susannah Ottaway ‘89. My earlier post detailed my process for determining the locations of parishes in England in order to better understand the use of workhouses for poor relief in the late 18th and early 19th century. I continued to find locations over break, and then double checked those locations I had found to make sure I hadn’t missed any parishes and so I was confident in the new locations. Finally, though, I finished that and reached a point where I could leave the spreadsheet behind and begin mapping! Of course, I quickly learned that you can never really leave the spreadsheet behind.

A map showing all parishes with access to a workhouse in England and Wales.

I quickly ran into a problem: I was working from home, so I only had access to ArcGIS online, which, while a great tool, is not as powerful as the desktop version. The online version will only take up to 1000 entries in a CSV upload at a time, and the database has a little over 3300 entries! I was able to get around this by splitting the spreadsheet into four separate uploads, broken up along county lines to make my life a bit easier. I finally got all four CSVs into ArcGIS online, double checking that all locations were in fact in the map document.

Once I had all the locations in, I was finally able to step back and look at the data as a whole (insert my rough map of all the workhouses colored by county). I soon noticed what looked to be another problem. Since the parishes were colored by county, there were some obvious outliers. In addition, I had imported a layer that showed the 1851 county boundaries, and many of these outliers did not match the county boundaries of that layer. I went through the counties again, looking at parishes that were at least three miles outside of the county boundaries, recording those that fell outside those boundaries to later check to see if the location was correct, and potentially correct it.

An example of the 1831 English counties and exclaves.

While I did find some incorrect coordinates, many of them were actually correct. As I dug into the parishes I thought were incorrect, I learned that many county borders had changed, and many had even had parts of their counties that were not continuous with the rest! Fortunately, I was able to find a layer file of the English and Welsh counties in 1831 courtesy of the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure , when many of these exclaves still existed. Using this layer, it was much easier to visually check that parishes seemingly outside their counties were in fact within their boundaries. Once again, the county layer made my life much easier – instead of going back through my spreadsheet, quicker visual checks were now possible for what I thought were incorrect – and many did turn out to be correct.

A map showing the number of parishes with access to a workhouse by county.

Now that I’m confident in the parish locations, my next steps are to really dive into the maps and cartography. The data for the maps is all there, but the task now is to create polished maps for both print and online publication. Despite some of my struggles with both the technology and the content (I had no idea that counties could have exclaves!), the use of GIS was a valuable tool, not just for the cartography, but also for the vital step of confirming that parishes were actually where they were supposed to be.

Workhouse Update – Elizabeth’s Ongoing Work

Gressenhall Workhouse in Norfolk, England
Gressenhall Workhouse, Norfolk, England

Most my work this term has been part of Team Workhouse, which is a research project that aims to create a digital reconstruction of the Gressenhall Workhouse in Norfolk, England during the 18th century in order to better understand the lived experience of workhouse inmates (my research this summer and presentation at the Midwest Conference on British Studies is also part of the Team Workhouse). This term, I’ve been working mainly on locating British parishes in the early 19th century. Our goal is to create maps and explore spatial relations of workhouses in England, based on an 1803 Parliamentary report. Professor Susannah Ottaway ’89 and others have already done significant work on finding the locations of the parishes and other places mentioned in the report. There are still many that don’t have locations, however, and that is what I’ve been working on. Although we ultimately want to know where the workhouses were, that information is not accessible to us at this time. We can find the location the churches, and often workhouses were very close to churches. In addition, the maps will be show larger areas, so individual parishes will be relatively small. As such, we have decided to use church buildings as approximations for the parishes and their poor relief.

My typical process looks like this: I would have a parish name (for example, Dowley, Magna, Wellington Division, Bradford Hundred in Shropshire), and would begin on a genealogy website to find out some preliminary information about the parish. I can typically get a church name (for example, Holy Trinity), and I then look to the Historic England pages for more information on the church building. This is the Historic England page for Holy Trinity, Great Dowley, from which I know that the current building is from 1845, although the site is older. I find the church on Google Maps (with the map on Historic England to help me), and use the coordinates for the parish.

A document of notes on parish locations for the Workhouse Project
A document of notes on parish locations for the Workhouse Project

Some places pose more challenges and require more investigation. In London, many of the parish churches of parishes listed in the 1803 report were destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and never rebuilt. For those parishes, I used this map, which shows London before the Fire. Even so, the streets have changed since then, so I had to estimate where the churches would have been. Another very common issue I have run into is name changes. “Warnslow” becomes “Warslow,” “Laytham” becomes “Layham,” and “Monythustoine” becomes “Mynyddyslwyn” (or “Mynyddislwyn” or “Mynydd Islwyn”). Some name changes are close enough that I am confident they are the same place, especially given the extra information, such as church name or county. Others, I find sources about the different names (especially that last one) to confirm that they are indeed the same place. For the most difficult parishes, I often had to resort to Google searches, old maps (there are many here!), and any other resources I could find on small parishes. I increasingly appreciate parish websites that have histories of their own parishes, which have been very valuable to me during this processes. It has taken many hours, but I have almost finished finding the unknown parishes, so before long we can move on to mapping the parishes and exploring the spatial patterns of 18th century poor relief.

Conference Presentation on our Virtual Workhouse Project

Professor Austin Mason and DHA Elizabeth present their paper on material culture of the workhouse at the Midwest Conference on British Studies
DHA Elizabeth and Professor Austin Mason presenting at MWCBS

This past weekend I presented at  the Midwest Conference on British Studies (MWCBS) at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, along with two Carleton faculty members and three other Carleton students. Our presentation is part of a larger Virtual Workhouse project which utilizes digital tools such as serious gaming and 3D modeling to gain an understanding of the lived experience of workhouse inmates in 18th century England during the Houses of Industry period of poor relief. This past winter, I took a class co-taught by Professors Mason and Ottaway called Bringing the English Past to Virtual Life that brought these ideas into a classroom setting and allowed the students to research, model, and creatively construct new ways of exploring the lived experience of the poor.

Professor of History Susannah Ottaway, with two more Carleton students, presented a paper that explored spinning work in the workhouse, and whether it was driven by moral or economic objectives. Professor Austin Mason, Brittany N. Johnson ‘18 and I presented our paper, “Locating and Representing the Material Culture of the Poor” in the same panel. Our paper focused on the challenges of digitally reconstructing the material culture of inmates in the workhouse, based on the limited textual and material sources that survive. This past summer, Brittany and I spent two weeks in Norfolk, England, excavating workhouse objects from an old rubbish heap at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum. We found mostly objects of mid 20th century date, but the processes that determine object survival also apply to objects from the 18th and 19th centuries. We examined archival and archeological evidence of the Gressenhall House of Industry, in Norfolk, England, and explored the value of digital tools in that reconstruction, including SketchUp, Twine, and Unity 3D. Since evidence is limited, reconstruction is hard. Despite this, our paper argued that new questions emerge when using these digital tools that may not have been asked otherwise: What color is the cloth produced in the workhouse? What is the texture? What did the furniture look like? Where was it placed? These questions allow us further insight into the lived experience of the poor during the 18th century, which is difficult to get at through traditional historical methods. All these questions and more are born out of digital reconstruction, and while we don’t have all the answers, the exploration of these questions ultimately deepen our understanding of the past.

A flowchart illustrating how objects survive into collections at museums, and how other objects are lost.
A flowchart illustrating how objects survive into collections at museums, and how other objects are lost.

It was an incredible opportunity to present at a conference with my professors and fellow students. The challenge and reward of preparing and presenting a paper that incorporates my own research was invaluable, as well as the chance to hear about and engage with other historians and their research in the wider academic world.

Elizabeth’s Introduction

DHA Elizabeth admires a large wall map
DHA Elizabeth

Hello! I’m Elizabeth, a sophomore at Carleton College intending to major in history. I was exposed to digital humanities in a class last winter, and I’ve since become fascinated by the possibilities offered by digital humanities! My other interests include traveling, maps, musicals, and Sudoku.

Prior to this week of training, I had not thought extensively on the necessity of matching a project’s needs to the suitability to a platform, especially content management systems (CMS). During the past week, we have explored three distinct CMS – Omeka, WordPress, and Reason (Carleton’s own website builder).

While all have the same basic goal, each best suit different projects. Reason, which is used for Carleton’s website, is quite easy to edit and requires absolutely no coding experience. However, it does not allow the degree of customization available in Omeka or WordPress. On the other hand, Omeka and WordPress are not as intuitive, and thus harder to learn, and coding experience is helpful for both Omeka and WordPress. Thus, each CMS is better suited to some projects than others; no one platform is always best for all projects. The correct CMS for the job depends on a project’s goal, scope, content, and workers.