Matt Smith's End of the Spectrum

Melbourne-based writer and journalist. Purveyor of finally crafted radio plays. A Muppet of a man.

Breathing new life into old maps

This is a behind the scenes post for a story that aired on ABC Radio National Future Tense on 2nd September, 2012.

This story began with Dr Lisa Beaven, an art historian from La Trobe University in Melbourne, who told me about a project she was now working on: have some period maps of the Roman Campagna region from the 1700s scanned at high resolution, and to overlay the results onto Google Earth. That way the period specific information can be seen with the context and accuracy of today’s technology.

The technology and historical aspects of the story appealed to me, and I thought it would be a great story for Future Tense, a radio show on ABC Radio National. Fortunately Antony Funnell (the presenter) and Andrew Davies (the producer) agreed with me.

There was an extra added benefit to this story. The original maps were held by the British School at Rome, and by sheer coincidence I was about to head to Europe for a holiday, and could arrange to see the original maps. It would add an extra dimension to it, which would never be a bad thing.

Despite all my careful planning, I managed to get ridiculously lost on my first day in Rome. I’d set out with high hopes, sweltering through the heat of the June day, but managed to get distracted by architecture, ruins, fountains, pizza, and a small dog (in that order). By the time I realised this, I had strayed well off my intended path to the British School at Rome. Once I found the British School, I managed to get lost within it as well. My sense of direction and love of history are equally to blame.

Valerie Scott and Professor Christopher Smith with one of the maps at the British School at Rome

Eventually I interviewed the Director, Christopher Smith, and librarian Valerie Scott. I can’t imagine the impression that I left them with, a sweaty Australian dressed in shorts and t-shirt waving a microphone in their face and drinking their ice tea, but I couldn’t have found them more helpful and accommodating.

The maps used in the project are lovely to look at. They contain an amazing amount of information that you can no longer see, in either the landscape or the history books, concerning land structure, ownership, and specifics such as crops. The maps are also elaborately decorated, and in spite of this, they’re believed to be fairly accurate.

Also contained within the British School of Rome’s collection is a large number of landscape photographs taken at the turn of the 20th century by previous school directors, which could be threaded into the digital maps. The project could almost become a timeline of the Roman Campagna area.

Chris Myers (VeRSI) and Dr Lisa Beaven (La Trobe University) examine a map in the Vislab.

A month later, in Melbourne, I interviewed Dr Lisa Beaven and Chris Myers from VeRSI to see what happened to the maps after scanning. The Vislab at La Trobe University is essentially a wall of giant computer screens which work as a motion sensor interface, the computer is controlled by hand actions and voice command. It was here that I interviewed them, with the map displayed around us.

A huge amount of detail was apparent in these maps, as was how much of what it was noting had been lost. Once transposed over Google Earth it showed a huge difference. Rivers and landscape changed over time, but structures had also vanished or lay in ruins, in some cases just foundations or missing entirely. The maps contain information about landholdings and ownership, as well as more obscure references, such as where the pope stayed in what year.

With Google giving us handy access to accurate maps every day of our lives, it’s easy to forget just how important they are, or how revolutionary they were. Even the concept of the street directory on the back seat of the car is less common these days. While we’ve gained an awful lot when it comes to accuracy of maps, it’s come at the cost of information.


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This entry was posted on August 19, 2012 by in history, radio, technology and tagged , , , , , , , .
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