Mapping the Known World, and Interpreting Maps

Her face is a map of the world
Is a map of the world
– KT Tunstall, Suddenly I See

What it must have been like to try to map the world, when it was still young, in the infancy of its civilisation.

from Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, Heinrich Bunting. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singaporefrom Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae by Heinrich Bunting

Well, just a little before being plunged into what we now call the “Dark Ages”. But still, that’s alot of cheesy romanticism isn’t it? Who’s to say if the world was young in the second century A.D.? Perhaps it was merely a period that supervened the dark ages which occurred when the most advanced culture of that day died out and/or had its records irretrievably destroyed, so, as with the Mayan codices, we are now none the wiser as to their existence.

Regardless, in the second century A.D., Claudius Ptolemy, whose name betrays the Greco-Egyptian influence in his life, put a grid on the world, assigning latitudes and longitudes to known places. His treatise on cartography, Geography (or Geographia or Cosmographia), contained principles for map-making that have been used throughout the world till this day.

sea monsters! Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeI’m not sure how common this is, but quite a bit of my misspent childhood was taken up with mapping my immediate neighbourhood – the best BMX bike routes featuring steep hills which you could ride down without hands on the handlebars (and probably later, without front teeth), secret shortcuts on the mossy sides of hidden drains, “here be dragons” warnings for kampongs guarded by fierce sharp-teethed mongrel dogs, etc. I did not need latitudinal/longitudinal grids but had to think of a way of depicting the features I wanted to record.

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula Asiae XI, Arnoldus Buckinck (1478 edition of Ptolemy’s Georgraphy!) featuring towns marked as “emporium” (places for trading) and current-day Malayan peninsula marked as “Aurea Chersonesus” (“Golden Peninsula”)

Tabula Asiae XI, Johann Reger (1486). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula Asiae XI, Johann Reger (1486 edition of Ptolemy’s Geography with current-day Malayan peninsula marked as “Curracherson”)

Tabula XI Asiae. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula XI Asiae

Undecima Asiae Tabula, Martin Waldseemuller (1513). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeUndecima Asiae Tabula, Martin Waldseemuller (1513)

It wasn’t until 1507 that Martin Waldseemüller broke away from the received wisdom of Ptolemy to incorporate up-to-date information in his world map, showing, for example, the Americas as a separate land mass.

A Map of Ancient Asia, Edward Wells (Oxford, 1700-38). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeAnd by the 1700s, Edward Wells could state that his map depicted “Parts Unknown to the Ancients either Greeks or Romans”.

So like historical accounts, maps aren’t particularly objective – map-makers necessarily need to make decisions about what to include in their maps. As Alfred Korzybski says: “the map is not the territory”. Otherwise, you get the particularly Borges-ian ideal of “a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it” (On Exactitude in Science).

depiction of a transpeninsular waterway. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singapore
depiction of a transpeninsular waterway. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singapore
depiction of transpeninsular waterway. Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singaporedepictions of a supposed transpeninsular waterway from Malacca to Pahang

Tabula Asiae VIII, Sebastian Munster (1545-52). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeTabula Asiae VIII, Sebastian Münster (1545-52)

Sebastian Münster, in decorating his maps of south-east asia with a variety of monsters, demonstrated how the Germans viewed the rest of the world in the mid-1500s.

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeEek, cannibals!

L'Asie dressee sur les observations de M.rs de l'Academie Royale de Sciences & de Sanson, Nolin, Du Fer, De L'Isle & principalement sur la carte que monsieur N: Witsen Bourgemaistre &c. &c. a donnee au public & sur les memoires les plus recens et mis au ja bunch of exotic people from Johannes Covens and Cornelis Morier’s L’Asie dressee sur les observations de M.rs de l’Academie Royale de Sciences & de Sanson, Nolin, Du Fer, De L’Isle

And since Google Earth had yet to be invented, you could tell the provenance of maps by the inaccuracies that were reproduced:
Tabula Geographica Hydrophylacium Asiae Majoris, Athanasius Kircher (Amsterdam, 1665). Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeAthanasius Kircher’s proposition of an underground reservoir (the apparently fictitious Chiangmai Lake or Chyamai Lacus) that he thought lay beneath Nepal and Tibet and fed great rivers that ran into the Gulf of Thailand, was depicted on maps for the next 200 years.

Depending on its audience, maps could also serve to chronicle political and/or economic influence in the world of the cartographer, possibly for the purposes of propaganda or advertisement:
Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeIn Indiae Orientalis, Insularumque Adiacientlum Typus, Abraham Ortelius (1579), the names of the five spice islands important to the Flemish are highlighted within a red banner (the original banner ad?).

Or help pirates navigate the islands in search of seafaring prey:
Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singapore
Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of Singaporeas might have been the purpose of this 19th-century chart with place names in Bugis.

So maps are: (i) a historical chronicle of prevalent ideas and interests in the society of the cartographer; (ii) because of the information conveyed, educational (for better or worse, depending on the accuracy of the knowledge being relayed); (iii) necessarily political.

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeWhen did map-makers start to delineate territories ruled by particular political systems on their maps? Did the discrete political-geographical units exist first, or were the contemporary maps complicit in the creation of separate nations and countries? Perhaps the simulacra (the map) the superseded the real at some point, a la Jean Baudrillard?

Geo | Graphic exhibition, National Library of SingaporeThe Northwards Embassy by Land and Water from Hanoi to Beijing (1880s). Basically, head out the door and walk straight?

And does this suggest that the interpretation of maps cannot be limited to merely understanding topographic symbols, but must necessarily include the context in which the map was made?

* photos were taken with permission from person manning the Geo|Graphic exhibition at the Central Lending Library, National Library of Singapore. “Just no flash photography!”

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