Uncertain Date, Uncertain Place: Interpreting the History of Jewish Communities in the Byzantine Empire using GIS - British Library Research Repository
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Uncertain Date, Uncertain Place: Interpreting the History of Jewish Communities in the Byzantine Empire using GIS



The presentation will address the problem of how to display uncertain historical data in a web-based Geographical Information System (GIS). In recent years the use of internet GIS has allowed the general public to access large volumes of spatial data. Although GIS has been applied in specific areas of academic research, the technology has largely remained the preserve of specialists, as it can be difficult to use, requiring training and experience (Boonstra 2009). Yet the application of GIS to humanities research in general, and to the interpretation of historical data in particular, has the potential to develop and answer innovative research questions (Bodenhamer, Corrigan & Harris 2010).

The ‘Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire’ project will use Internet GIS technology to disseminate data that outline the history of these communities. The project is based at the Centre for Advanced Religious and Theological Studies, Faculty of Divinity, University of Cambridge and is funded by the European Research Council. Textual, epigraphic and archaeological data allow the project to establish the locations, dates and other attributes of Jewish communities. Prior to our work these data were scattered, fragmentary and difficult to access. The project incorporates varied data in an Internet GIS which provides an efficient method of dissemination through dynamic, interactive maps. The GIS will feature an easy-to-use interface making data accessible through a standard web browser. The project team hopes that this accessibility will promote the inclusion of the Byzantine Jewish communities in the study of Byzantine, Jewish and minority history. A further aim is that medieval historians with little experience of GIS will become familiar with the technology and its potential through use of the website.

The spatial perspective that the project offers will allow research into Jewish communities to develop in new directions. For example, the project’s GIS could be used to aid interpretation of the involvement of Jews in trade, the effect of political change on their distribution and lives, and the factors that influenced the development of separate Jewish residential quarters. The focus of this presentation will be the role of Jews in the Byzantine economy. A robust understanding of geography is important for interpreting trade and therefore the perspective that GIS offers makes it a valuable aid to understanding historical economies. Characteristics of Jewish communities such as their location and date are crucial to evaluating their interaction with the wider economy and are fundamental to the structure of the project’s database. Yet these data are beset by uncertainty, causing significant problems with their representation and interpretation in GIS.


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