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What maps tell us

Essay by Dr. Christina Connett 
Google Earth; data SIO, NOAA, U.S.Navy, NGA, GEBCO, image; Landsat, Image IBCAO; Image U.S. Geological Survey
Google Earth; data SIO, NOAA, U.S.Navy, NGA, GEBCO, image; Landsat, Image IBCAO; Image U.S. Geological Survey
When we think of maps we often assume they are scientifically objective tools that help us get from here to there, that they are telling us truths about the world in which we live. However, maps are subjective, and like any form of art and design they have stories to tell and reveal a lot about the times in which they were produced. The most successful maps are selective, leaving in information that is important to the agenda of the cartographer and excluding the chaos of other details that are irrelevant to the narrative. There is a beautiful economy of design to a good map, and many maps can help us decode the belief systems of its audience.
Political Map of the World, August 2013, CIA Sourcebook
Political Map of the World, August 2013, CIA Sourcebook

Is North Always Up?

In the 21st century, particularly if one lives in the Northern Hemisphere, we assume maps to be oriented north up. However, this is a recent convention that is not consistent with maps produced up through the sixteenth century when Europe became the center of map production. Europe became a global power during the age of exploration and put itself at the top of the world.
The most important part of a map for the intended user tends to be at the top, and in the Middle Ages, this often reflected religious rather than political points of view.

Some Alternatives

Consider this medieval “T-O” map based on the 7th century writings of Isidore of Seville, the Archibishop of Seville, Spain.  According to the Bible, after the great flood had destroyed all life not preserved on the Ark, the three sons of Noah (Shem, Japeth, and Ham), were sent off to the known continents to repopulate and rule the earth. Shem went to Asia, Ham to Africa, and Japeth to Europe. On the map below, the “T” is made of the known important bodies of water that separate the continents: Europe and Africa are divided by the vertical line of the Mediterranean; and the horizontal line represents the Don, the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea and the Nile. The entire world is surrounded by the “O” of the great ocean.
Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, printed by Günther Zainer, Augsburg, 1472
Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae, printed by Günther Zainer, Augsburg, 1472
In this type of map, such as in the Ebstorf Map illustrated below, Jerusalem is typically placed at the center of the world as the birthplace of Christianity and the East (also called the Orient) is at the top, as this was the location of the Garden of Eden and the origin of man. We still use the word “orientation” when we are trying to find our way based on this early European cartographic tradition.
Gervase of Ebstorf, Ebstorf Map, manuscript map on goat skin, 3.6m x 3.6m, 13th century. Originally in the Ebstorf convent, but destroyed in 1943 during WWII
Gervase of Ebstorf, Ebstorf Map, manuscript map on goat skin, 3.6m x 3.6m, 13th century. Originally in the Ebstorf convent, but destroyed in 1943 during WWII
A wonderful example of a medieval map of the world, or mappa mundi, is the Ebstorf Map made in the 13th century (above). In this map, the T-O model is used but here the world has actually become the body of Christ. If you look carefully, you can see his hands extending out to the sides, his feet at the bottom, and his head at the top in the East, next to a small image of the Garden of Eden. Jerusalem is represented as the belly button of the world and in the center of Christ, and the picture is filled with images of stories from the Bible and their relationship to the known world. This map not only reveals the geo-spiritual belief systems of the medieval world but is also a visual encyclopedia of Christian narratives.
While medieval Christians were placing east at the top, early Islamic cartographers spun the world to a south orientation. Five times a day a faithful Muslim is required to pray facing Mecca. Intricate and beautiful instruments called astrolabes were adapted from the Persians and modified by Muslims to help determine not only the time of prayer, but also the direction of Mecca from one’s current location.
In a map by the influential Arabic cartographer Al-Idrisi, the world again reflects a circle in a T-O model, but the world is represented with south at the top, and Mecca, (in what is now Saudi Arabia), is at the center of the world. The world is represented as a circle surrounded by ocean. The peninsulas of Spain and Italy are in the lower right, and in Africa the Mountains of the Moon are shown as the source of the Nile. The Arabian Sea is in the upper left and the Caspian and Black Seas are also included. The map is decorated with mountain ranges and rivers, and includes the great wall containing the legendary Gog and Magog in the lower left, a mischievous and dangerous people fenced off from the rest of the world until the end of the world according to Islamic, Christian, and Jewish tradition.
Al-Idrisi, Mappa Mundi, Oxford Pococke Manuscript, Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS. Pococke 375, fols. 3c-4r)
Al-Idrisi, Mappa Mundi, Oxford Pococke Manuscript, Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS. Pococke 375, fols. 3c-4r)

Maps tell stories, not facts

Maps are narratives that tell a story of the time and people of their origin, even the modern Google Earth is a product of subjective choices of visual signs and symbols of our time. These seemingly objective maps, like any other, involve selections of information, human editing, and a visual language legible to the current end user.
Next time you are looking at the standard map of the world oriented to the north, consider the 20th century Upside-Down Map of the World published in New Zealand. Tired of being put on maps "down under," New Zealand and Australia are at the top and the effect is jarring; our sense of orientation all depends on your point of view.
Essay by Dr. Christina Connett

Want to join the conversation?

  • blobby green style avatar for user Elizabeth Dietrich
    what do the maps of today say about us?
    (11 votes)
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    • starky sapling style avatar for user scriberevitam
      First of all probably that most of the maps used nowadays represent africa way smaller than it really is compared to the USA or even Europe. It is a choice that made occidental geographers to "reduce" the importance of these countries compared to the "Big/North/Wealthy/Important countries". The fact is that that it is not actually a mistake or a treason, it is just a matter of representing a 3 dimensional sphere on a 2D paper wich is something that is not possible to do without choosing to represent it in one way or another.
      More than that, there are still a lot of differences on the maps depending on the country you live in because your country will probably be on the center of the world map. This way, it is funny to look at World maps from USA, Europe, Australia and the South Pole and to compare them to experience different ways of seeing the world. I hope I answered your question, let me know.
      (23 votes)
  • piceratops seed style avatar for user monalibanerjee75
    'top of the world' does'nt make sense anymore, even as kids our parents taught us that up meant North now that does'nt seem true. the problem is what is up ?
    (6 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Tatianna Jaynes
      North, South, and so on, are just names we put to a geography based direction. For example; My name is Tatianna. Now I can change my name but that doesn't change who and what I am. It just changes what people call me. Maps are just representations of a location's relation to the rest of the world.
      (4 votes)
  • primosaur ultimate style avatar for user Eve
    How do we know that our maps are accurate?
    (3 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Thomas Palmer
    Are there any very early examples of accurate maps, and if so, when and what region? I would assume military endeavors would have pushed for more accurate cartography out of necessity.
    (6 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user AymeeLove
    Wow I never looked at maps this way.
    (4 votes)
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  • piceratops seed style avatar for user John Bennett
    Perhaps it I is because I am a trained USCG navigation specialists, but including this discussion in this section on artful just seems to me to be out of place in a way.

    I can see how it does relate to a place in art. Would it be better placed in a separate discussion area? Well, I suppose that it is already being done in this section. Perhaps it is better said that more discussion of it simply as art with no real navigational value at anytime that I can see would be the right thing to say. Basically, of what value is it if only serve to the the students with a dumbfounded feeling of "What"?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user drszucker
      Great question. Art is informed by culture and in turn, a solid historical understanding of how cultures of the past understood their place in the world is needed to understand art. The issues raised in the essay concerning the ways that traditions shape our world view is particularly value for learning about visual culture. And of course, these maps are themselves undeniably works of art. This essay has been placed in the art history area for all of these reasons though I completely agree that it would have value in other areas as well. One of the points of the essay is to invite us to avoid the idea that there is pure objectivity immune from human experience and bias. The questions and tip and thanks for this essay suggest that many readers both understand and appreciate the essay.
      (5 votes)
  • piceratops seedling style avatar for user chilly vibes
    where can i find more information about art history
    (2 votes)
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  • leaf grey style avatar for user theone02330
    maps would seem to be of historic value even in todays wourld
    (2 votes)
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  • female robot amelia style avatar for user kaitlyn hunt
    were it says christ is in the map...I relly cant see it :(
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Kenneth Stefanov
    Didn't know where to ask this question but, would a cartographer need skills in astronomy in order to be a mapmaker
    (1 vote)
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