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Reflecting Lough Derg through a Prism – deep mapping water and culture

21st September 2018 – Dr James L. Smith has been a Visiting Research Fellow at the Trinity Long Room Hub in 2017-18 and as a committed interdisciplinarian, he has found himself very much at home here.

He began his studies at the University of Western Australia, with an interdisciplinary major in medieval and early modern studies which included the study of literature, history and ideas: ‘the thing they had in common was the reception and modification of ideas over time.’

In his PhD work he moved into environmental humanities and came to focus on water and how in medieval times it came to stand in for abstractions such as faith, because ‘in a Christian intellectual world where the ultimate source of everything is God and that is distributed through a variety of things in nature and humanity…the materiality of water, its gravity, ability to be divided and managed and engineered was actually a very useful way of understanding how knowledge moved around.’ This led to his work on the ‘hydrosocial cycle’, which looks at the cyclical relationships between humans and water. When humans interact with water over time, engineering and modifying it - through fishing, mills, canals and a myriad of other ways - this in turn changes those humans, the form of their society and hence their cultural and intellectual development. Dr Smith cites Marshall McLuhan’s ‘Once you shape the tool, the tool shapes you’ as highly relevant to environmental humanities ‘because when one interacts with the environment, it becomes a tool for imagining oneself.’ The result was a 2018 monograph entitled Water in Medieval Intellectual Culture: Case Studies: Case Studies from Twelfth-Century Monasticism, published by Brepols.

Dr Smith’s main research project during his current Fellowship has been in the area of long-term socio-ecological research - how environments shape societies over time. This consisted of a pilot project entitled 'Conduits of Faith: Deep Mapping Medieval Spiritual Interactions with Water', which is focused on the ‘deep mapping’ of Lough Derg in Co. Donegal. The concept of deep mapping was popularised by ‘PrairyErth’ the 1991 book by William Least Heat-Moon, a writer of European and Native American ancestry, whose objective was to show how histories and narratives from America’s First Peoples and later European population had left their mark on the Kansas prairie landscape and influenced how people lived within it.

James describes the process of deep mapping Lough Derg as ‘laying down echoes, flickers of stories, images, activities, tasks…over a relatively small but very significant place, to create a deep map [that enables you to] move through interlocked clusters of experience, and find the past, the present, different types of people’s experience all coming together.’

In scoping out this map, he is working with four different genres of data subsets: historical narratives, literature and maps – the ‘more conventional tools of the historian’; non-textual sources drawing on the social sciences, archaeology and anthropology; the natural sciences, using the practices of liminology; and finally, multimedia including sound archives and additional modes. Using the tools of digital humanities, he will draw out the rich array of material that has gathered about this body of water, to tell a cultural and interdisciplinary history, as well as the story of the spiritual waterscape, what people have thought and imagined through the centuries when they look at Lough Derg.

The deep map of Lough Derg will show the diverse range of elements that over time shaped this place that is a ‘cultural lodestone’. The map will be ‘a spatially narrow but culturally deep collection – that you can drill down into…to find different things [and] use as a tool for research.’ Dr Smith emphasises that he sees his role as part of a continuum of over 500 years of scholarship exploring a lake that figures hugely in the spiritual and religious history of not just Ireland but Europe. And while his own focus is water studies and the history of religion, this will not prescribe what another person will see when they enter into the deep map ‘it will invite other people in and it will be like a prism, everyone can come in and see something different reflected back.’ And, he stresses, he will be delighted if others use his work to take their own research in ‘directions I hadn’t even imagined’.

Dr Smith will continue to work on the Lough Derg deep map, collecting the material he has curated in Omeka, a cultural heritage collections management system created to assist museums in putting together rich collections of objects or pieces. He describes it as a flexible system that ‘gives you a lot of tools to describe things in different registers, if you lay them all together in a collection you can create something very versatile…then you can pull out material and visualise it from a variety of perspectives … spin out different stories. Play with it! Make different chains and connections.’ The collection will be sustainably-hosted and archived under an open license, in keeping with Dr Smith’s fervent support of Open Access and Open Science scholarship.

Dr Smith has also been thinking about a more efficient way to combine conventional mapping done by Geographic Information Systems (GIS) used in the mapping and analysis of a variety of data: ‘At the moment there’s a bit of a disconnect between GIS which is very useful for quantifying and analysing – and these other heritage tools which are very much more about seeing space as a collection of cultural objects… part of the methodological challenge is thinking about how these approaches can be combined more efficiently.’

In March 2018 James was awarded the CARMEN Project Prize 2018 for his proposed project on ‘Pre-modern Manuscripts and Early Books in Conflict Zones’. CARMEN is a worldwide network of medievalists linking research institutions, universities, interest groups and individuals. The project led by James will be a collaborative one involving an international steering group from the Universities of Leiden and Bergen, the UK National Archives, and the University of Applied Science, Porsdam. The selecting CARMEN committee praised its ‘persuasive case that a focus on written heritage in conflict zones is long overdue.’ James has been a very active participant in the full range of events at the Trinity Long Room Hub and he was inspired by a Digital Humanities workshop on Spatial Humanities to form a new reading group on this field. To learn more about the tools of Spatial Humanities in practice, the group is undertaking a project with the Glucksman Map Library to digitise some maps of Trinity highlighting aspects of the history of the Trinity College site, its boundaries and access over time. The Spatial Humanities group has more plans for the coming academic year, including a Spatial Humanities conference in the UK in October and planning future participation in the DARIAH-EU Spatial Humanities group.

Dr Smith will remain on the Trinity campus as he has been awarded a two-year Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellowship to continue his research on Lough Derg, commencing October 2018.

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