Mapping the Historic Capitals of Myanmar

It’s been some time since I’ve written about or created GIS content outside of a professional environment. I figured it was time to take on a quick project to get back in the swing of things.

I came across an article on Wikipedia about the rather lengthy list of capitals the current state of Myanmar (Burma) has had in roughly the last millennium. This struck me as a unique opportunity to quickly create a project that explores historical GIS, that is, the analysis of historical data using geographic information systems. This was also an opportunity to explore additional tools in the realm of GIS production. In this case QGIS, the open source alternative to some of the mainstream, proprietary products on the market today, was what I needed exposure to.

Below is the finished product of the data sourced on the Wikipedia article, with graduated symbology related to the time a location spent as the capital proper. Included is an inset of the crowded central region for clarity.


Full resolution


The methodology was straightforward. Getting to know the suite of tools included in the QGIS environment was quick and painless after reading the documentation and looking up answers to questions as they arose.

The first step was importing a basemap for the project. As opposed to the creation of a new document in ArcMAP, QGIS doesn’t present the user with a list of basemaps to choose from out of the gate. There are plugins that allow this. I wanted to get a feel for the program and decided to download a basemap from the selection of maps in this blog. Once the basemap was in place it was time to parse the article and create the tabulated data.

CSV data was the preferred format for the project. It’s quick to write up and easily imported as a delineated data layer. There was a design choice to make when curating the data regarding capitals that existed at the same place in different periods of time in a noncontinuous manner. Since the data was being represented in two dimensions, as opposed to three or three plus time, it would have been messy to include different symbology in the same spot. Offsetting these symbols manually would allow the intricacies of this data to be displayed correctly but for the sake of simplicity I decided to use one symbol for each location, summing the time a location spent as the capital throughout time. Since the symbology was going to be divided 5 different ways, the accuracy of the time wasn’t of extreme importance. Some of the figures were quickly eyeballed, if you notice by crosschecking the data. The integrity of the data suffers in the long run but the end product, as it is displayed in this project, is the same.

Below is an example of the formatted data:




The data was separated into four columns, one for each the name, the latitude, the longitude, and the length of time it was the capital.

Exponentially graduated symbology was something I would have liked to use for this project but it didn’t seem to be possible with the base functionality of QGIS without plugins so linear graduated symbology was used. One of the capitals in the Myinsaing period; Myinsaing, wasn’t included in the data due to insufficient information regarding its location. This city has since been abandoned and while the archaeological site might have been used to represent its location, it was not easy to find. The data for Pinya was included by cross referencing this map manually with the basemap.

Modern country borders were added to put the data into a modern perspective. Major ocean features and country names were included. An inset was included to display the congested central region in a different scope. A legend was included to explain the symbology. Below is picture of the final table of contents for the project. Equal interval was used to delineate the graduated symbology.




One major change between QGIS and ArcMap is the design mode. This is the mode used to organize how the data will be displayed once it’s projected properly in the data view. ArcMap using a feature called design layout to organize data while QGIS uses a feature called print composer. Both include similar functionality but are presented through the framework of their respective clients.

How could this data be useful? Spatially representing this data allows a researcher to quickly look and interpret different characteristics. For example, the early capitals were inland, representing the inland empires they ruled. The capitals around the Andaman Sea represent a different type of state as power became more maritime in nature. This is the at-a-glance functionality maps provide that I often like to cite as an important part of representing data spatially. Including dates would have been an interesting touch to add to the map but, like stated above, intermittent reigns of the same capitals would have been difficult to represent.

I enjoyed working on this quick project and real like it was a good primer for the QGIS environment. Hopefully this knowledge can be applied in future projects as I continue to make content in QGIS.