Mapping History: Seeing Premodern Cartography through GIS and Game Engines (2020-2021)


For several decades, scholars of historical cartography have heeded the call to “deconstruct the map”— to treat maps not as representations of the world as it was but as texts, which employ symbols, rhetoric and silences to make arguments about the world as the mapmaker wants it to be seen. Meanwhile, historians, literary scholars and others have applied computational analytics and machine learning to raise new questions about texts through techniques like text mining, XML encoding and data analytics. Bringing these two insights together, how might we “read” maps computationally without altering them to fit the constraints of machine readability?

Project Description

What if we could climb into historical views of cities and experience the worlds they represent? How could we design digital methods and tools that reconstruct historical images like these in 3D even if they don’t correspond to modern ideas about mathematical perspective or gridded Cartesian space?

This project team aims to do just that: develop a methodology that analyzes these maps and views through the process of clipping, modeling and reassembling them in the Unity Game Engine. This malleable software environment will be the aggregation and exploration point for data we create via image tagging, database building and 3D modeling. We welcome applicants from all backgrounds and envision a team that includes students interested in fields as varied as history, art history, computer science, game design, urban studies and many others.

As a means of assessing the variety of city maps, views and panoramas created during the medieval and early modern period, a summer 2020 Data+ project will collect and mark up historical images of the cities of London and Lisbon for further analysis by the 2020-2021 Bass Connections team.

Anticipated Outputs

Project website; prototype 3D “playable” environments based on various sources, including the 16th-century Portuguese Book of Fortresses, as well as historical views of London and Lisbon; database of tagged images viewable in full resolution through a IIIF Storyboard image server


Fall 2020 – Spring 2021

  • Fall 2020: Participate in project-based course on cartography and digital mapping (and/or independent study); complete World Creator training; construct 3D maps in World Creator; export maps to Unity 3D for experimentation and generating storyboarding ideas for a Unity-based mapping interface
  • Spring 2021: Participate in “Mapping History with GIS” (and/or independent study); build a 3D cartography environment in Unity; participate in related conference presentations

Team Outputs

Sandcastle. Eric Monson, Philip Stern, Ed Triplett, Joel Herndon, Augustus Wendell, David Zielinski, Brittany Forniotis, Anderson Hagler, Sam Horewood, Rosalind Rothwell, Sam Schmidt, Helen Shears, Brittany Forniotis, Anderson Hagler, Sam Horewood, Rosalind Rothwell, Sam Schmidt, Elizabeth Bond, Molly Borowiak, Samy Boutouis, Austin Connors, Rebecca Eneyni, Jake Heller, Nicole Lindbergh, Abbey List, Isa Lu, Emmalee Mariner, David Mellgard Jr., Mina Mortchev, Emma Rand, Caroline Rettig, Kerry Rork, Ali Rothberg, Julia Shenot, Manmit Singh, Hannah Thurston.

This Team in the News

Mapping History in a Pandemic: An Unexpected Journey

A Virtual Stroll through the 2021 Bass Connections Showcase

Project Launch: Sandcastle

Building Sandcastles with History

See related Data+ summer project, Computational Approaches to the History of Cartography (2020).


Team Leaders

  • Ashton Merck, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Eric Monson, Duke Libraries
  • Philip Stern, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Ed Triplett, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

/graduate Team Members

  • Brittany Forniotis, Art and Art History-PHD
  • Anderson Hagler, History-PHD
  • Sam Horewood, History-PHD
  • Xinyue Qian, Art and Art History-AM
  • Rosalind Rothwell, History-PHD
  • Sam Schmidt, History-PHD
  • Helen Shears, History-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Elizabeth Bond, History (AB), English (AB2)
  • Molly Borowiak, Computer Science (BS)
  • Samy Boutouis, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Austin Connors, History (AB), Spanish (AB2)
  • Rebecca Eneyni
  • Jake Heller
  • Abbey List, Computer Science (BS), Statistical Science (BS2)
  • Isa Lu, Economics (BS)
  • Emmalee Mariner, Medieval & Renaiss St (AB)
  • David Mellgard Jr.
  • Mina Mortchev
  • Emma Rand, Environmental Sciences (BS), Medieval & Renaiss St (AB2)
  • Caroline Rettig, Art History/Visual Arts (AB)
  • Kerry Rork, History (AB), Political Science (AB2)
  • Ali Rothberg, English (AB), Computer Science (AB2)
  • Julia Shenot, Philosophy (AB), History (AB2)
  • Manmit Singh, Electrical & Computer Egr(BSE), Computer Science (BSE2)
  • Hannah Thurston, History (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Joel Herndon, Duke Libraries
  • Augustus Wendell, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • David Zielinski, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies