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 is 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

This project team will develop a methodology and a pedagogical tool that will allow scholars and students to navigate and experience maps—especially those, such as chorographies or itineraries, which often mix varied representations of both the natural and built environment simultaneously in 2D and 3D. Like text mining, these experiences may generate new research questions about how early modern maps worked.

Team members will build a visually tagged and annotated database of iconography in a sample of early maps; create a library of simple 3D models based on a typological analysis of the case studies; reproduce these maps in the Unity game engine as a means of “experiencing” historical maps; and visualize the data captured in the 2D markup phase of the project.

Ultimately this project seeks to help scholars and the public experience the abstract reality and internal logic of a premodern map, while also allowing them to compare representational techniques. The team will particularly seek to examine ways in which these views produce arguments about borders, power and sovereignty both in Europe and in Europe’s growing colonial expansion into the Atlantic world, Africa and Asia.

The initial phase of the project will focus on three collections of European maps and views:

  • Georg Braun’s Civitates orbis terrarum (1617), which contains over 500 views of cities from around the world
  • Duarte d’Armas’s Livro das Fortalezas (Book of Fortresses; 1509-10) produced during a tour of the Portuguese border with Spain
  • Antonio Bocarro’s Livro das Plantas de Todas as Fortazelas, Ciadades e Povoações do Estado da India Oriental (Book of Plans of the Fortresses, Towns and Villages of the State of India; 1635) which documents over 50 Portuguese settlements in the East Indies in the 17th century.

These works all offer large corpuses of maps that mix 2D and 3D views and focus on fortified cities, towns and outposts.

Anticipated Outputs

Website; prototype map for each of the three atlases in Unity 3DHTML; database of tagged images viewable in full resolution by IIIF Storyboard image server  

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this team will consist of 4 graduate students and 6 undergraduate students from History; Art, Art History & Visual Studies; Information Science + Studies; International Comparative Studies; Computer Science; Romance Studies; and others. Team members can come with a range of skills and backgrounds, including, but not limited to, historical and archival research, especially in European history and the history of the European empire; digital mapping and programming (including GIS, CAD and Unity); or European literature and languages (especially Latin and Portuguese).

Students will divide into three research teams, each focused on one of the three maps described above. Students will also be able to take a team-taught, project-based course on the history of cartography and digital mapping in Fall 2020. There is also one project-based course – “Mapping History with GIS” (Instructor: Triplett) – that will be scheduled during Spring 2021 that could make use of the data gathered by the teams.

Students will have the opportunity to learn and deepen skills and background in a range of mapping, visualization and gaming platforms (web development, GIS, CAD, Unity, WorldCreator), as well as historical fields and methods, including European history, history of empire, architectural history, geography and languages. Both undergraduate and graduate students will also be able to develop project management skills, including team management, data cleaning and coordination.

In Summer 2020, a Data+ team, Computational Approaches to the History of Cartography, will create a database of premodern maps identifying key features in each map and model library of 3D objects and annotated 2D maps. Students can participate in the Data+ team without having to join the 2020-2021 team, although preference will be given to students who apply to do both.

A graduate student will be selected to serve as project manager.


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


Independent study credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

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


Team Leaders

  • Philip Stern, Arts & Sciences-History
  • Ed Triplett, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies

/graduate Team Members

  • Anderson Hagler, History-PHD
  • Sam Horewood, History-PHD
  • Rosalind Rothwell, History-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Hillman Han, History (AB)
  • Audrey Magnuson, History (AB)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Joel Herndon, Duke Libraries
  • Elizabeth Milewicz, Duke Libraries-Digital Scholarship Services
  • William Shaw, Duke Libraries-Digital Scholarship Services
  • Victoria Szabo, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies
  • Augustus Wendell, Art,Art History
  • David Zielinski, Arts & Sciences-Art, Art History, and Visual Studies