The Past Under a Magnifying Glass: What Maps Can Do for Cultural History

The Past Under a Magnifying Glass: What Maps Can Do for Cultural History

The Past Under a Magnifying Glass: What Maps Can Do for Cultural History


In the world of maps, there is no limit to what can be illustrated and examined.

Climate data can be visualized and analyzed, demographic data can be studied down to the smallest parish, and educated decisions can be made about where a new school should be located.

There are also less obvious uses of GIS and mapmaking – me and my research team, led by Professor Timothy Tangherlini at UCLA, are analyzing historical cultural data and making it accessible to the public.

An Enormous Amount of Data

Dane Evald Tang Kristensen

In the 19th and early 20th century the Dane Evald Tang Kristensen was traveling all over Denmark, most times walking, collecting stories of all kinds. He went from city, to village, to house with a result of 37,000 stories.

An enormous amount of work, also on the initiative of Professor Tangherlini, has already been completed and (the thousands of stories in Kristensen’s collections have been digitized and translated).

The work could be taken further since Kristensen kept track of where and when the stories were collected, and by whom. This was used as a foundation to index keywords in stories, such as supernatural creatures – “Elves” and “Strandings.”


The supernatural creatures, nisser, or elves.

In essence, we now know what type of stories was more popular in different areas of Denmark. Other interesting trends in the data has also been studied. Click here to see how everything has been made accessible to the public.

Hundreds of Fieldtrips, Thousands of Miles

In roughly 900 pages of travel journals, Kristensen is accounting for the 230 fieldtrips that he made between the years 1886 and 1916. We are reading the texts and extracting every stop he takes.

The final result of the extracting can be visualized in maps. Below is his 190th fieldtrip, which he made in November 1907.


Some of the places he visited are really small, and unknown to most. We have located them using a database containing more than 200,000 place names, both historical and current, with matching coordinate pairs.

The route he took between the different stops can be visualized using an extensive road network. The distance of the total route can finally be calculated, and whereas fieldtrip 190 in the map is one of the longest with 373 miles, it is clear that Kristensen travels thousands of miles.

Just the Beginning…

After having located the stops, we can link them with different colored lines corresponding to what means of transportation he used. We can also make animations to add the fieldtrips to the map in chronological order, or an animation for every fieldtrip.

These are just a couple of examples of how the data can be displayed, and much more complicated analyses can be made once the fieldtrip data is combined with the existing data mentioned earlier.

Inspire to Explore

One question that comes up after I talk about what I do is, “well, what use is this?”

I asked myself the same thing before I really got into the work.

I don’t have a direct answer to the question, but I can say that it’s amazing what you can see when you look this closely at something, and what questions that can be asked in turn.

We are creating new knowledge in a place where most people would not expect it, and I hope sharing the idea for this research can inspire others to put the macro scope to whatever field of study they are engaged and interested in pursuing.

Photos and graphic courtesy UCLA and Ida Storm.