Spatial History Mapping Project

Emeryville Shell Mound, San Francisco, and sea level change. Source: Spatial History Project.

If you’re at all a map geek – and most archaeologists have that tendency – then you might enjoy flipping around Stanford’s Spatial History Mapping Project. This project is intended to further creative visual analysis and representation of historical events and phenomena.  Luckily for us, they apply their skills to some archaeological problems, such as the relationship between sea level change and shell mound development illustrated above:

Did rising sea levels force native people to raise their shellmounds to stay above the tides? The visualization suggests that no, mound building was unrelated to sea level rise.

You can see that particular page here.

Rising sea levels flood a river valley and create San Francisco Bay. Source: Spatial History Project.

The set of projects called “Between the Tides” contains several studies of historical ecology of San Francisco Bay, such as the sea level animation above. Most of the projects are more explicitly historical, but those offer a suite of interesting ideas for how archaeologists might portray their data.  For example, the “Loss of a Finger” project on historical accidents on railways is quite interesting.  You can browse all the galleries at once here.

Ironically enough, the visual design of the website is one of the weakest aspects of this project.  Low contrast text which renders very small on a dark background is extremely hard to read.  At least some of the more recent studies pop up to be black on white.  And, I was somewhat underwhelmed by some of the studies.  The shell mound one above draws interesting conclusions but of course the visualization itself is very crude.  Now, maybe crude is fine if this is indeed a research tool, not eye candy.  But I think I could have drawn the visualization in a couple of hours, so it would be good to know exactly how the tool is going to be of use to me. There is a hint of how in their beta data visualizer. which is fun to play around with, but again, how do I get my data into such a form and why would I use this tool and not a normal GIS?  Is it about interactive web presentations, about actual analysis, about eye candy, what?  It makes me think that archaeologists might actually be way ahead of the “digital humanities” on some of this, both methodologically and theoretically.

That aside, the site is a fun browse and quite stimulating.

Railway space and cost. Source: Spatial Histories project.

3 responses to “Spatial History Mapping Project

  1. Strangely coincidental connections between BC and the Bay Area are embedded in this blog somehow –
    the PI for this project, Stanford historian Richard White will be speaking at UBC next Monday evening 5-7pm at the UBC Forest Sciences Centre, Lecture Hall 1005. 2424 Main Mall Vancouver on

    “What is Spatial History? And Why You Should Care”


  2. Oh, thanks twoeyes. Ask him to change the fonts on his website, k? thx.

    Also thanks for the tip that he may have local interest as well:

    White, Richard 1975
    Indian Land Use and Environmental Change: Island County, Washington: A Case Study.
    Arizona and the West 17(4):327–338.–And-Why-You-Should-Care-.aspx


  3. It was an excellent talk with lots of good history which emerged from informative visualizations. A lot of the examples on his website represent undergraduate projects. As he described it, White’s intent is to use spatial approaches to ask better historical questions.

    Ill let you email him or their webmaster about your font issue.


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