Visualizing the Palimpsests of Place

By Christian Bittner

The term palimpsest originally describes a scroll of parchment, whose contents had been erased and overwritten. Since the erasure is not exhaustive, it leaves visible traces of older inscriptions. The parchment therefore contains different layers of content simultaneously.

The palimpsest has been used by geographers as a metaphor to grasp the nature of places as certain localities loaded with different layers of meaning. As Ivan Mitin (2007) puts it in his article: Mythogeography: region as a palimpsest of identities:

“The palimpsest is a unite totality of layers with variable hierarchy. Each of the layers of the palimpsest is in fact one of descriptions of place or one of spatial interpretations & myths, that is it is one of the multiple contexts (realities) of a place.” (p 3)

Remarkable about this definition are the analogies to Geographic Information Systems, where we likewise deal with hierarchically ordered layers containing descriptions of places.

Similarly, Mark Graham (2010) deploys this idea of the palimpsest in his article Neogeography and the Palimpsests of Place  for a certain conceptualization of geospatial data on the web:

“The virtual Earth and digital places are being constructed at a blistering pace in cyberspace. These cyber-places are not simple floating and static mirrors of the physical world. They are instead often a component of the palimpsest of place.” (p 423)

If you launch Google Earth and switch on all layers in your table of contents and wait a few moments, you’ll get a nice visualization of the palimpsestic nature of geoweb data. In the following picture we see a funny mess of layers ‘describing’ Germany and it’s surroundings.

Note that for Graham all those layers of digital geoinformation on the web are not simply representations of places in the ‘real world’. Rather, this data actively shapes our knowledge and by this our spatial behavior. In this light, it is not surprising that the hierarchies of geospatial data are influenced by powerful actors. Or why do you think has Disneyland Paris by far the biggest name tag in the screenshot above?


Über Christian Bittner

I'm a PhD Candidate at the institute of Geography, University of Erlangen-Nuremberg, Germany. The subject of my thesis is "Web 2.0 mapping in Israel/Palestine", which is at the intersection of my research interests: Political Geography, Critical Cartography, GIS and the Geoweb. You'll find my 'official' academic profile here
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2 Antworten zu Visualizing the Palimpsests of Place

  1. WS schreibt:

    Yes, but: producing a palimpsest means to erase the previous text and to replace is by another one. The superimposed layers, though, are not hidden, if I understand well. I would agree that, say, Wikipedia articles are palimpsests at the first glance, but their history is perfectly traceable, and are meant to be so, to the contrary of a palimpsest on parchment.

    • Christian Bittner schreibt:

      If you put it like this you’re right of course. The whole aspect of erasure doesnt really correspond to the nature of geoweb data.
      But I think the point here is that erasures of palimpsests were actually imperfect, leaving the previous text readable and by this enabling multiple intact layers lying upon each other.

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