Spatial History Creating New Avenues of Study

Space is an incredibly broad concept, and one Richard White states historians typically write as if it matters little. This comes as little surprise because of the many layers and factors that go into determining space. In doing this week’s readings and looking around the ORBIS website, we see that in looking at relational space through arcGIS, historians can open up entirely new avenues of thought and research that they had not been able to before. It also becomes abundantly clear that movement, especially in the ORBIS project, is a key ingredient in determining and visualizing spatial history, as per the argument in “What is Spatial History?”

We have spoke many times about textual history and other traditional modes as being confined to chronological accounts of the human experience. For me, this week’s readings shows the biggest break from the traditional. By layering together the different types of movement and factors that go into it, we are able to understand relational space in a way that historians had never been able to before. We often think of space in terms of distance in miles/kilometers/etc. but in looking at it in a different way, in relation to movement as with the ORBIS project, we see for instance the importance of time in determining how far away something appears to be. We also see that in determining distance and time we have to factor in mode of transportation, weather, and price. By taking all of these into account we can fully understand the meaning of space, in this case in ancient Rome.

While there is clearly a lot of research that goes into the production of these maps, White is also correct in his assessment that this is an open-ended project that actually produces more questions for historians rather than answers. By creating projects that take spatial history into account, we open up entire avenues as seen in the “Applying ORBIS” section of the website. For example, in reading ORBIS and the Ancient Itineraries: Preliminary Observations by Dan-el Padilla Peralta we see how, “For future researchers, ORBIS will be useful not only as a means for gaining purchase on the realities of mobility in the Roman Mediterranean, but as a tool for evaluating gradations in the nature and quality of the information furnished by the IA and other itineraries for road travel in the Empire’s various regions.” This is just one of the incredibly broad areas that has been and can be explored thanks to the work done on ORBIS. The opportunities provided to historians in mapping history are certainly much greater than what I had expected initially, and one can see why and how space had previously been overlooked in the more traditional and textual modes of studying history.

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