Reconstructing the past with digital tools: searching for a forgotten cemetery

Digital tools have made research in the past more accessible than ever before. A new tool like the handwritten text recognition of Transkribus is an example. But more known tools like Microsoft Excel also have a major influence on this research. However most of this digital research of the past would be impossible without the digitalisation of the original documents by the archives that keep them. Some archives have lagged behind in this development but most large archives are exponentially scanning documents. To a large extent, this also depends on the funding that is provided.

This summer I started looking at a medieval land tax book from around 1490 (the village of Oud Gastel). This book had recently been digitised by the archive in my region. The reason for looking was a combination of curiosity and boredom. In the prior year I had made a digital map with QGIS of the situation and land ownership in the year 1733.

Making a map without a map

This ‘new’ book provides a challenge. The plots of land are described very detailed and systematically with the name of the field, owner, surrounding fields, surface area and of course the amount tax to be paid. Unfortunately there are no accurate maps of the situation in c.1490. The first detailed map is the one from 1733 but it would be impossible to fully rely on this map as it was made around 240 years later. However making a network of the neighbouring plots of land was possible. Each plot has a description of the neighbouring owner to the east, west, south and north. The data for each plot was put in Excel to make this puzzle possible to solve.

In QGIS I added circles that correspond to the size of the plot of land. The connected plots are linked together with arrows. Each circle also has information about the owner, region and name of the field. When the plot borders to a street or river it is visualised as a red or blue line parallel to the circle.

Most of the current streets were already in use around 1490. When a group of plots is fully surrounded by streets (a block) it is possible to calculate the historic surface area of the group. It can then be compared to the current measured surface area to see if it corresponds.

The forgotten cemetery

An abandoned church in Stiphout (Eastern part of Brabant).

One of the plots owned by the local church has the name old churchyard (oude kerckhoff). Further in the book there are three other plots that border this parcel. The existence of an abandoned church location was previously unknown but it sheds a light on the development of a village. The exact location is not yet known, but it can already be placed in a group of plots corresponding to an area. Without the help of digital tools the extraction of information from this book would have a been difficult to achieve.

For the visualisation of the circles I am still looking for other ways to schematically visualise the map. In the current state the visualisation is somewhat chaotic and unclear. Gephi might be a good option.