Its frantic approach made practitioners wince but, through Time Team, Channel 4 made archeology prime time entertainment for over two decades. That fact alone vividly illustrates a widely shared fascination amongst the public for peeling back the layers of the past and peering at the lives of those who came before us.
Now that Time Team is off our screens, cutaway junkies are having to look elsewhere for their fix. Fortunate, then, that the team at the University of Edinburgh working on the Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History (MESH) project are developing a way that anyone, anywhere, can construct a digital historical atlas.
Professor Richard Rodger the project’s lead researcher says that MESH’s founding “philosophy is to make the cartographic information easily available in digital form to the public… Allow historians access… produce maps of the city, mak[ing] Edinburgh’s history known [and] available to its communities”.
That all sounds very worthy – but it’s merely the start of MESH’s ambition.
How the distribution of butchers shops changed over 165 years. Image: MESH.
Since the project received a £633,000 grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, it’s mapped between 80 and 90 per cent of modern day Edinburgh has been mapped. This is important, because MESH’s approach blends the picture of contemporary Edinburgh provided by OpenStreetMap with historical geological and cartographic data.
This process makes it is possible to create accurate maps that trace Edinburgh’s development across time. Users can watch as the New Town takes shape, or use traditional historical sources like trade directories to plot the historical location of butchers shops or pharmacies.
Rodger says the maps have “show[n] [him] things [he] just wasn’t aware of”: for instance, he has recently been using them to explore the development of Edinburgh’s financial sector and the way that this influenced patterns of suburbanisation.
MESH is currently developing an array of tools that will allow school pupils “to inspect the city’s [development across time] and ask questions of it”. This is where the “social” aspect of the history that MESH is interested in shines through. By tracing the development of a wide range of activities, for instance “eating and drinking across time”, it is possible for the researchers to humanise the raw data and bring users closer to their forebears.
A sample of the team's research. Image: MESH.
Rodger is keen to point to the potential political implications of the work that he is doing. MESH’s work opens up new dimensions in investigating traditional social history concerns around the socioeconomic and spatial origins of inequality, whilst also pointing at new questions, especially ones about open access to data.
The latter issue is one that harks back to social history’s founding assumption that the decisions of those with power and wealth require scrutiny. In a decidedly Time Team turn of phrase Rodger describes MESH’s work as excavating the “historical data miden”. This doesn’t mean see the data as necessarily belonging to the past. Citing a report by the Danish government, which estimates that its decision in 2002 to make its address files open access, has boosted the economy by €14m a year, he suggests that free access to contemporary and historical mapping data could offer a myriad of benefits to, for instance, those engaged with the planning and premises licensing processes.
For Rodger the humanities, through initiatives like MESH, can provide a firm foundation and historical underpinning to the development of smart cities. In doing so, the tools MESH are developing offer everyone, whether in an academic chair on an armchair, the chance to develop a historical cuttaway without risking the rain.