The Imperiia Project: a spatial history of the Russian Empire

Locating Historical Places

Nothing could be easier than establishing location (where, on the surface of Earth, [an event] occurred).

Or so it may seem.

When it comes down to it, there is a difference between talking about location and placing information on a map. The latter requires a level of specificity that can be confounding to a historian. What do we mean? Well, for example, can the richness and variability of an urban space like Moscow really be reduced to a set of coordinates? Or, what happens when Google cannot provide the location of a village 50 kilometers south - or was it southeast? - of Ekaterinoslav that you are (mostly) sure existed in the 1820s? 

When it comes to historical GIS, geolocation is both an art and a science. It involves scandalous amounts of research, triangulating with old maps, tapping NASA-powered gazetteers, and making peace with varying degrees of uncertainty and inaccuracy. It involves asking oneself, "how can I be sure that where mattered, when I don't even know exactly where where was?" Most importantly, it forces us to think carefully about how we conceptualize and define place, and how the actors whose lives and deeds and ideas fascinate us conceptualized and defined place.

Answering the "Where?" question tends to involve answering one or more of the following questions. (For starters.)

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