Ingo Frank: Ontology Design Patterns for History: Modeling Place-based Information in the Digital Map Lab Holy Roman Empire

This Data for History Lecture is a report on work in progress in the project DigiKAR (Digital Map Lab Holy Roman Empire). The project conducts two case studies in order to explore new approaches of collecting, modeling, and visualization of data about early modern places in the Holy Roman Empire. The Electorate of Mainz case study approaches the complex spatial structure of the Holy Roman Empire using a prosopographical approach to examine the geographical as well as social mobility of different groups (officials, students, etc.) of persons throughout their lives. The Electorate of Saxony case study is dedicated to the collection and integration of place-based historical information and explores new ways of visualizing the different political, legal, economic and social spaces beyond the well-known patchwork maps of the Holy Roman Empire. The talk focuses on data modeling for the second case study.

Traditional GIS modeling of geospatial data limits the possibilities to integrate, distribute, retrieve, and reuse the data (see Kuhn, Kauppinen, and Janowicz (2014) for details). The Linked Data paradigm (cf. Kuhn, Kauppinen, and Janowicz 2014) enables the creation of interoperable and reusable, i. e. FAIR data. Ontologies and semantic web technologies are located in the historical information life cycle (cf. Boonstra, Breure, and Doorn 2006; Meroño-Peñuela et al. 2015) to highlight the relevance of this paradigm shift for historical research. After a short conceptual analysis of the concept of place, the place-based information approach (Blaschke et al. 2018) is introduced and discussed in the context of the project requirements as well as related works (Ballatore 2016; Grossner 2010; Görz and Albers 2018; Grossner, Berman, and Simon 2017; Ducatteeuw 2021; Schneider et al. 2021; Sanfilippo, Markhoff, and Pittet 2020).

The main part of the lecture demonstrates how SHACL (Shapes Constraint Language) can be used as a quite practical tool to create ontology design patterns by defining constraints for a selection of relevant classes and properties out of the overwhelming choices provided by CIDOC CRM (Conceptual Reference Model) and its relevant extensions CRMgeo, CRMsci, CRMpc, FRBRoo, and SDHSS (Semantic Data for Humanities and Social Sciences) (Beretta 2021). The following ontology design patterns will be presented by showing modeling examples and discussing issues with handling the typical vagueness and uncertainty of historical information as well as possible shortcomings of some modeling decisions:

    • pattern for centroid point coordinates of a place
    • pattern for spatial extent of a place
    • pattern for place type
    • pattern for place names
    • pattern for political, legal, ecclesiastical affiliations and right holdings
    • pattern for quantitative information

For example, the SDHSS class C14_Holding_of_a_Right_or_Obligation (target class behind the node shape dmlo:AffiliationShape in the UML diagram) is used in the ontology design pattern for multiple affiliations.

Referring to the possible mismatch between source-oriented versus model-oriented data processing (cf. Boonstra, Breure, and Doorn 2006, p. 47 f.) the talk examines typical data preparation problems. There are for example some data normalization issues in data which is reused from legacy datasets: In order to integrate this information about legal and manorial right holders further ontological analysis via an interdisciplinary exchange of applied ontology and historical research turned out to be very helpful – see e. g. work on the concept of ‚Grundherrschaft‘ (Schreiner 1983) and its feudal law context (Flügel 2000, p. 54) (see also Garbacz et al. (2010) as a successful use case of applied ontology). Of course, modeling the legal context would be a complex procedure to explicate the historical reality behind the sources. A promising approach could be to have a more detailed look at the documents involved in the feudal law context (see Wenz-Haubfleisch 2001) and to apply a philosophical theory of document acts (see Brochhausen, Almeida, and Slaughter 2013) to modeling. Last but not least, an approach towards more historical reality representation opens potentials to combine place-based information with biographical data from the second case study (see Schattkowsky 1997).

To conclude, it is argued that the analysis and presentation phases of the historical information life cycle have to be merged into an iterative research process and that therefore it is required that one should not exercise a pure source-oriented data collection workflow, but one has to make explicit the implicit model in action during data collection (cf. argumentation by Schwandt 2022, p. 84 f.).

Finally, an outlook will show what further refinements and extensions of the catalog of ontology design patterns (e. g. with patterns to model infrastructure and associated rights of safe-conduct including the typical early modern idiosyncrasies (Scholz 2024) are planned and how the project envisages future HGIS as “a tool to creatively engage with one’s sources” (Lünen 2013, p. 237).

Lecture within the Data for History Lectures series
Time: Wednesday, 6 December 2023, 4.15-5.45 pm
Place: via Zoom – Request access via email (


Project Homepage:
Ontology Design Patterns Documentation:
Competency Questions Documentation:
GitHub Repository:

Featured image: Zürner, Adam Friedrich: Karte vom Meissner Kreis in Sachsen, ca. 1:125000, Handzeichnung, 1733, SLUB Dresden,


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Beretta, Francesco (2021). “A CIDOC CRM Extension for Historical Data Production and Interoperability (SDHSS): The Case of University History”. In: Professorial Career Patterns Reloaded – Data, Methods and Analysis of Digital Humanities Research in the Field of Early
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Boonstra, Onno, Leen Breure, and Peter Doorn (2006). Past, present and future of historical information science. 2nd ed. DANS. DOI: 10.26530/OAPEN_353255.

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Grossner, Karl (2010). “Representing historical knowledge in geographic information systems”. PhD thesis. University of California, Santa Barbara.

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Schwandt, Silke (2022). “Opening the Black Box of Interpretation: Digital History Practices as Models of Knowledge”. In: History and Theory 61.4, pp. 77–85. DOI:

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Digital History Berlin (Redaktion) (2023, 4. Dezember). Ingo Frank: Ontology Design Patterns for History: Modeling Place-based Information in the Digital Map Lab Holy Roman Empire. Digital History Berlin. Abgerufen am 20. Juni 2024, von

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