Doctor Patricia Murrieta-Flores: Analysing space and place through technology in archaeology, history and literature

On 29 September 2016, Doctor Patricia Murrieta-Flores of the University of Chester was the guest lecturer for AFF624, Mapping and Modelling Space and Time. The title of her lecture was ‘Analysing space and place through technology in History, Archaeology and Literature’. She specifically focused on applications of Geographic Information Systems to Humanities research, breaking her lecture down into three primary areas of focus – an introduction to GIS, the history of spatial humanities being used in history, archaeology, and literature, and some projects she has worked on which applied spatial analytical techniques to humanities questions.

Doctor Murrieta-Flores dwelled briefly on what GIS is. She explained that we are more familiar with it than we think, describing Google Maps and Google Earth as light forms of GIS. GIS, she explained, allows the investigation of spatial relationships, and can be utilised to analyse the relationship of one piece of information to another. She also spoke about the history of the technology and its development from environmental sciences, specifically mentioning the Canadian government’s desire in the 1960s to quantify the countries resources, before going on to talk about its adoption by the US military in the 1960s/70s and its becoming open-source, before being first applied to archaeology, then more gradually adopted by the fields of history and literature.

This led to the next lecture topic of the application of GIS to archaeology. It is used to determine areas where there may be a concentration of buried artefacts, as well as analysing the physical features of the landscape. As an example, Murrieta–Flores spoke about a project she worked on dealing with megalithic monuments in Southern Iberia. GIS was used to determine if these monuments were associated with transhumance routes. In the project, there were a number of possibilities raised as to the placement of these monuments and their relationship to each other. Both GIS and visibility analysis were used in the project which concluded that the association between human movement corridors and these megalithic monuments was linked to ancient herding pathways.

After this, Doctor Murrieta-Flores moved on to talk about the use of GIS for history. The first application of the technology to the field was in reading manuscripts, collating the place-names found therein, assigning coordinates to these place-names, and building a map from this. Originally this had to be done by hand, but with the development of GIS it became automate such work. The primary challenge, she explained, was developing the methods and techniques to understand the geographies created, then explained that when corpus linguistics was combined with GIS it became possible to mine texts for data without a human having to read them. The example given was a pilot study carried out using the HISTPOP records of registrar general reports from 1837 to 1946, examining births, deaths, and marriages in the UK in this time period.

Finally, Doctor Murrieta-Flores turned her attention towards the application of GIS to literature. She spoke of one project in which she was involved where eighty literary works from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries related to the Lake District were analysed using GIS. The places mentioned in these works were mapped and the results demonstrated how the importance of the area as a destination evolved over time. However, she also spoke about the issues of applying such analysis to literary texts, referring to recurring issues such as references to vague or imaginary places, spelling variations, placenames being the same as surnames, and the same placename occurring in different places. Literary scholars use GIS in order to understand the role of place and space in narrative, but how can places be analysed if they cannot be mapped? This is one particular question which is still being examined.

In conclusion, Doctor Patricia Murrieta-Flores’ lecture proved a fascinating introduction to the use of GIS in Humanities subjects. She introduced GIS, briefly spoke about its history, and then went into great detail on how it has been applied to archaeology, history, and literature. There is no doubt that it remains a developing field with issues still to be worked out, however after attending this lecture I feel that it will prove invaluable in years to come.

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