Scholars Complete Medieval Atlas

In a quiet ceremony in May, a team of Harvard professors, graduate students, and undergraduates announced the completion of the Digital Atlas of Roman and Medieval Civilizations—an interactive online database that gives students and scholars access to a wealth of previously unavailable information.

The atlas—which claims to provide analysis on “all aspects” of Western Eurasian civilizations in the first 1500 years of modern history—maps subjects such as the Roman road network, the voyages of the Crusades, and the path of the rats that spread the bubonic plague.

In the 1990s, history professor Michael McCormick first conceived of the idea while working on a book on communication and commerce. At one point, in order to understand the circuitous route the Vikings took in their various explorations, McCormick wanted to see the world as it would have appeared to medieval Norsemen.

The only problem was that no such maps existed, with or without a Scandinavian focus.

“Every year since the 17th century, at least five maps of the Roman Empire have been made,” McCormick said. “But why do we have to keep making the same map over and over again?”

After several years of using such maps, McCormick was awarded a small amount of funding from the Office of the Provost to create maps that would supplement his undergraduate course on the Roman Empire. After a trial run with those maps proved successful, McCormick and his team began to create maps for his other courses. In 2006, however, the project’s reach expanded even further.

“Four years ago, we realized that we had created something that would be useful to scholars and students around the world,” said McCormick, who had by then begun collaborating with Chinese history professor Peter Bol and research associate Guoping Huang of the Center for Geographic Analysis, and a cadre of 20 graduate and undergraduate students.

Later, McCormick won a $1.5 million distinguished achievement award from the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, which has funded large portions of the project.

Although the atlas’s information became available online just before the beginning of this academic year, the team now has plans to allow free downloads of all its basic data sets. McCormick said he hopes his team’s efforts will help to expand the knowledge pool even further.

According to medieval historian Daniel L. Smail, McCormick’s atlas is “particularly useful” because the field of medieval studies “is so scattered.”

“Historians in this period are very much like Sherlock Holmes—we tend to have to work by inference,” Smail said. “Something like the digital atlas has an added value that gives us statistical correlations that we couldn’t see before.”

For the undergraduates involved, the project provided a chance to conduct real historical research with a senior Harvard professor.

“[The atlas] was a great opportunity to see how to get involved with history research,” said Brendan Maione-Downing ’13, who plans to concentrate in history with a secondary field in archaeology.

“It’s much more difficult to see how you get involved with history research than it is with scientific research,” he added. “It was a really exciting thing to do so early on.”

—Staff writer James K. McAuley can be reached at mcauley@fas.harvard.edu.

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