Reconstructing Ancient Geography

The following text appears on banner no. 11 in the exhibition space.

Geography is central to the investigation of ancient cultures. Humans are spatial creatures, and their activities and interactions in antiquity were embedded in spatial contexts ranging from the physical layout of the smallest private home to the grandest public spaces of the city-state or imperial capital, and beyond. Consequently, we can better understand the thoughts and actions of ancient people if we can identify the places and spaces they occupied, and explore the challenges and successes they encountered there, traveling, living, and at times exploiting resources. For cultures like ancient Greece and Rome that possessed a literate elite, we can sometimes turn to first-person testimonies that include ancient place names, geographic descriptions, travel statistics, maps, spatial data, and expressions (conscious or otherwise) of worldview.

From the earliest investigations of Renaissance humanists, scholars have sought better ways to collect and use this vast amount of data. More recently, computers (built to store and analyze information) and the Internet (designed to communicate it) have become essential tools for the historian and the archaeologist—allowing research to proceed more rapidly and more effectively while offering opportunities to develop entirely new methods of investigation.

Aerial and satellite imaging tools have received significant media attention for their value in discovering hitherto unknown archaeological remains. Three- dimensional reconstructions of buildings and historical landscapes, increasingly reliant upon high-resolution data gathered in the field, have multiplied as the costs of ever-greater computing capability have dropped. Less widely publicized but still essential are the contributions of such techniques as viewshed analysis, which determines the portions of a landscape visible from a particular location— a fort or watchtower, for example. Likewise, modeling and simulation use theoretical descriptions of ancient systems such as sailing vessels or trade networks to estimate their speed or effectiveness. Finally, network analysis can reveal unexpected connections among related objects or provide a frame- work for estimating the costs of travel and exchange in antiquity. All of these tools can be experienced in the websites highlighted on the computer display in this gallery.