Using Google Maps to Teach Roman Archaeology, Part 1: A Digital Trip down the Via Appia

 

In this guest post, we introduce a few Google tools for helping your students see sites in situ. This will be the first of several posts on using digital tools in the classroom, and we’re really excited about the topic; we hope you are, too! 

My experience as teacher of Roman history and archaeology has been developed mainly in two universities: The Charles III University of Madrid and York University at Toronto. In both cases, I had the opportunity to teach multiple courses with lectures on specific Roman sites, as well as the cities of Italy and other provinces. In this regard, my own experience as field archaeologist has driven me to one conclusion: many times, in order to really understand some research questions, it’s more useful to visit different sites and regions personally than to read papers, or even monographs. I am pretty sure that many scholars have had, and will continue to have, the same impression. The sensory experience of the visit creates an ideal learning framework, one that makes the transmission of knowledge natural or intuitive, almost unconsciously.  

From this relatively simple beginning, one of the main concerns of my pedagogical project as university teacher has been to use digital tools to reproduce this kind of “visit” in the classroom. Of course, as many readers might think, the application of Augmented Reality (AR) technologies in the classroom is happening right now in some cases (see https://diglab.org/portfolio/catalhoyuk-dive/). This will give us incredible tools in the future that were unthinkable just some decades ago. Nonetheless, the current access to this kind of applications is scarce in the majority of Classics programs in our universities. The generalized availability of even the more simple devices (such as the AR glasses) used to perform this kind of immersive experience in the classroom is still a tale of science fiction.

What I propose to discuss in this post is something based in one digital resource of everyday use and totally accessible to any teacher or student with a computer, internet, and projector: Google Maps. In the following lines I will try to exemplify, through using a previously designed lecture on the ancient Via Appia, how we can make an effective use of Google Maps to invite our students to make a virtual trip through different kinds of Roman sites or regions.

The main point on which this lecture is based is so simple (I am a big fan of simplicity): it is about reproducing a walk along the first kilometers of this Roman road without leaving class. In the specific contexts of my courses, this lecture is related to the explanation of two main topics: the life in and functions of the suburban areas of the Roman cities, and the social and cultural importance of Roman roads.

The first step is to place students in the right spatial context. The use of the Google Maps route calculator gives us an opportunity to gain a precise idea of distances, as well as the navigation of the walk in relation to the Urbs and in relation to the main heritage elements in the current urban landscape of this part of Rome (Fig. 1).

google maps showing rome aurelian wall city center and via appia

Fig. 1. Screen capture from Google Maps with the route developed during the virtual walk across the Via Appia Antica. Note the superimposed use of a plan with Servian (Blue) and the Aurelian wall perimeter on the ancient Urbs.

 

The joint use of Google Maps with the satellite view allows us to establish a comparison between the ancient and the modern layout of the city, and to explain the strategic position and architectural configuration of ancient gates as the Porta San Paolo, the current Museo della Via Ostiense (Fig. 1.). This source is especially useful for discussing the radial configuration of Rome as an “organic” (1) city from the Early Republican period to the modern construction of some of the most important highways in the current metropolitan area.

Using the same tool, and playing with the scale options in the classroom, we can help students visualize the importance of this road and its scale in comparison with other important infrastructure of the imperial city: for example, those constructed in the ancient Portus. In this regard, the aerial view of the ancient Port of Trajan in the area ostiense of the city is always as great point of reference to introduce the capacity of the Roman builders to change the landscape in crucial and amazing ways (Fig. 2).

google map showing rome suburbs including port of trajan at ostia antica

Fig. 2. Screen capture from Google Maps with the aerial view of the suburban sectors of Rome. On the right, a detail of the Port of Trajan (Portus, Ostia Antica).

  One of the main advantages of using the ancient Via Appia as an example is that we can establish a linear narrative to structure our lecture, as an ancient itinerarium. This gives the lecture an intuitive introduction on the spatial perception of traveling during Roman times. By this we can introduce some important landmarks for the understanding of this issue, such as the goblets of Viccarello or the Tabula Peutingeriana, as illustrations.

To recreate this kind of classroom experience, I recommend preparing a PowerPoint with links to specific landmarks for the different stages of your digital walk. Otherwise, the risk of getting lost using the zoom function is very high. We can lose a lot of time trying to come back to a known point, and students will get bored seeing how we fight with the Google Maps cursor!

Starting with our virtual tour, we can use also use the different options of the street view tools to introduce some of the most important elements of the area around the ancient Porta Ostiense, such as the Pyramid of C. Cestius or the Aurelian walls (Fig. 3), and the main configuration of the suburban areas of the ancient Urbs.

google maps street view of rome, Porta Ostiense, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius and a sector of the Aurelian walls.

Fig. 3. Screen capture with a middle range view of the area of the Porta Ostiense, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius and a section of the Aurelian walls.

The use of the Google’s “Street View” can also be extremely useful for the explanation of different kind of building techniques around the Porta Ostiense. Using these tools, we can literally encircle this gate, introducing how some practitioners of the so called archeologia della architettura have applied the stratigrapical method for the analysis of the construction of monumental buildings through different historical periods (Fig. 4).

google maps view of rome's porta ostiense showing different construction techniques

Fig. 4. Screen capture from Google maps street view, showing different building techniques employed in the construction and historical restoration of the Porta Ostiense.

These examples only represent a few of the possibilities offered by the use of Google Maps in the classroom. In later posts, we will continue our digital walk down the ancient Via Appia, trying to illustrate how the use of this type of tool can enrich the learning experience in different courses on Roman history and archaeology.


Notes:

(1) By “organic” city, I mean that the urban layout of Imperial Rome is not the result of a orthogonal or homogeneic planification. It is rather the result of urban growth developed after centuries of construction projects occupying urban spaces with no general regulation in terms of urban shape.


Jesús Bermejo is a Roman archaeologist with a strong interest in the analytic study of household economies, both in urban and local context, and the social interpretation of ancient architecture. Currently, he is involved in two fieldwork projects: one in collaboration with  Alicia Jiménez (Duke University), focused on the excavation of the Roman Republican Camp of Renieblas (Soria, Spain); the other related to the spatial analysis of the ager laminitanus, the Roman territory of the ancient municipium of Laminium (the current Alhambra in Ciudad Real, Spain).  

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