Conventional Geographical Information Systems (GIS) software struggles to represent uncertain and contested historical knowledge. An ontology, meaning a semantic structure defining named entities, and explicit and typed relationships, can be constructed in the absence of locational data, and spatial objects can be attached to this structure if and when they become available. We describe the overall architecture of the Great Britain Historical GIS, and the PastPlace Administrative Unit Ontology that forms its core. Then, we show how particular historical geographies can be represented within this architecture through two case studies, both emphasizing entity definition and especially the application of a multi-level typology, in which each “unit” has an unchanging “type” but also a time-variant “status”. The first includes the linked systems of Poor Law unions and registration districts in 19th century England and Wales, in which most but not all unions and districts were coterminous. The second case study includes the international system of nation-states, in which most units do not appear from nothing, but rather gain or lose independence. We show that a relatively simple data model is able to represent much historical complexity.
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