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Mapping archaeology while mapping an empire: Using historical maps to reconstruct hydrology and ancient settlements

last modified Jan 07, 2019 10:21 AM
New research highlights the archaeological importance of early 20th-century maps produced by the Survey of India. Although created in a particular imperial context, these maps incidentally recorded the locations of thousands of ancient archaeological sites and hydrological features.

Geographical and human landscapes undergo constant change, and the pace of today’s urban and rural development means that ancient landforms and settlements are more at risk of being modified, obscured and/or obliterated than ever before.

Map showing progress of imperial surveys up to 1st October 1904. (Image credit:; Public Domain)

In many places around the world, archaeologists are trying to document as many of these features as possible before they are lost. Researchers now make use of a range of historic aerial photographs and satellite and remote sensing imagery to help them locate features that are either hard to see on the surface or have already been lost.

Two new articles published in journal Geosciences by researchers from the Department of Archaeology and the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research at the University of Cambridge, highlight the archaeological importance of the information recorded in maps that were produced at the start of the twentieth century by the Survey of India. Although created in a particular imperial context, these maps incidentally recorded the locations of thousands of archaeological sites and hydrological features. 

Detail of a map showing mound features of various types, including sand dunes, the remnants of historic roads, and archaeological sites. (Image used with permission from the University of Cambridge library)

The first paper looks at the historical context of the creation of the Survey of India 1” to 1-mile map series, and draws attention to the growing awareness and interest in archaeological heritage that was happening in parallel in India and Britain. Systematic mapping was being attempted in both places from the nineteenth century onwards under the auspices of the Survey of India and the Ordnance Survey and continues up to the present day.

Although major innovations in cartography occurred in both places, the undertaking in South Asia was of a completely different scale to what was being attempted in the British Isles. Nonetheless, the work was systematic and the survey methods that were used resulted in the incidental location and documentation of thousands of features that may have an archaeological origin.

Lead author Dr Cameron Petrie, notes “scholars have long been aware that these historic maps record archaeological sites, but no one has tried to use them for large-scale systematic mapping of archaeological sites, or in combination with remote sensing data. The results are a revelation.”

Research on the ground to confirm which features on the maps are actually archaeological sites is still underway, but it is clear that this approach will dramatically increase the number of known archaeological sites and revolutionise our understanding of the ancient landscapes of South Asia.

The second paper explores the full suite of evidence related to the 1909 flood of the Indus River that resulted in the destruction of the District capital of Dera Ghazi Khan. The city of Dera Ghazi Khan was built centuries earlier on an island in the midst of the Indus River floodplain in order to control a critical crossing point. The flood in 1909 destroyed the city and the neighbouring military cantonment soon followed; both were shifted to their current location several kilometres to the east.

India map sequence.jpg

Historical maps, satellite photos and modern map imagery showing the location of the historic location of Dera Ghazi Khan. (image credit Arnau Garcia et al., with permission from the University of Cambridge Library)

Lead author Dr Arnau Garcia notes “the level of detail about the historical hydrology recorded in these historical maps is exceptional. It is clear that the civil and military authorities were aware of the danger of the river and did their best to protect the settlement in the years leading up to the flood, but the force of the river was unstoppable.”

The original articles are published open access and can be accessed and downloaded via the following links:

Petrie, C.A.; Orengo, H.A.; Green, A.S.; Walker, J.R.; Garcia, A.; Conesa, F.; Knox, J.R.; Singh, R.N. Mapping Archaeology While Mapping an Empire: Using Historical Maps to Reconstruct Ancient Settlement Landscapes in Modern India and Pakistan. Geosciences 20199, 11.

Garcia, A.; Orengo, H.A.; Conesa, F.C.; Green, A.S.; Petrie, C.A. Remote Sensing and Historical Morphodynamics of Alluvial Plains. The 1909 Indus Flood and the City of Dera Gazhi Khan (Province of Punjab, Pakistan). Geosciences 20199, 21.


The research presented in these two papers has been carried out as part of the TwoRainsWaMStrIn and Marginscapes projects, which are all supported by funding from the European Research Council.

The TwoRains project has been primarily funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program grant agreement no. 648609.

The WaMStrIn project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 746446.

The Marginscapes project has been funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation programme under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie grant agreement No. 794711. 

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