What are maps for? To plan a trip? To help if you get lost?
That’s a good start, but they can do so much more! Maps record journeys, adventures and discoveries. They show where things are and how to find them. They show who owns which bits of land, where enemies might hide, and what the land is like – forested, built-up, desert, covered with snow, filled with monsters…
But maps also do much more than that. They model the world, and give a snapshot of how people have seen the world in the past.
The earliest maps show the limits of a person’s experience – they only show as far as someone could travel on foot or by boat, or perhaps by horse (or camel).
Later maps show an expanding area as people travelled for days, exploring and recording what they found. But they hadn’t found everything. This map just fades into blank space below North Africa and to the East of China because no one knew what was there.
After a while, people in Europe thought they had the world sussed. They knew it was spherical and that there were other lands. But there were still bits they hadn’t found yet – such as North and South America, Australasia, Antarctica – and a host of small islands.
We now we think we know what the world looks like. But does it look like this:
or like this?
The top one is the view we’re used to. To show the surface of sphere on a flat page or screen, it has to be distorted. The familiar map distorts the size of countries. The second map shows areas the size they really are. See how small America is compared to Africa? No wonder this map hasn’t really caught on. It makes America feel small. America IS small!
What about a journey? A map’s useful for planning or recording a journey. You’re probably used to seeing a journey like this – a line between the starting point and end point that might be quite wiggly.
But that’s not how you experience a journey when you are making it – you don’t feel as if you are wiggling around all over the place. You experience it as a line, with the landscape falling to either side of you. Old maps of journeys often showed the journey in that way. This shows what you would expect to see and pass on the way, rather than whether you should turn left or right.
When distances were marked on maps, they were generally marked in time as people had no way of measuring distance. It’s far more useful to know how long a journey will take than how far it is. We still report train journeys and flights in terms of time.
Some maps don’t look like maps at all. This Aztec map doesn’t show the geography of the city of Tenochtitlan at all – it shows the city’s social history.
The eagle on a cactus represents the mythical founding of the city. The blue border represents the water that surrounds it and the blue cross represents the canals that weave through it.
This is how a European drew Tenochtitlan in 1524:
This very beautiful design is an Arab map from the 10th century. All maps of this type are very stylised, using only smooth curves, straight lines and geometric shapes. It is hard to read this map if you don’t know the rules.
It’s hard to tell, but this map made by al-Istakhri 1,000 years ago shows two rivers in the Middle East, the Tigris and the Euphrates.
Not all maps are flat pieces of paper (or on screen). This is a map used by Marshall Islanders in the Pacific. The shells represent islands and the bent wood shows the tidal currents. The canoeist used the flow of water in different currents to work out how close land was.
And this map was used by Inuit canoeists. A paper map would quickly fall apart when it got wet, and the Inuit would get frostbite removing their mittens to look at maps. This wooden map is carved to represent the shape of the coastline. The user kept it inside a fur mitten and felt it to compare its contours with the passing landscape.
Next time you use Google maps, think for a moment about how different a map could be.
Anne Rooney writes information books for young and old people, and fiction for young people. She has published around 200 books, with a slight concentration on science topics. She is Chair of the Educational Writers Group of the Society of Authors and is also Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge University. Anne bound her PhD thesis in fuchsia. If she had her time again she’d work on the history of disease. She would like to get back to creating some art. On writing non-fiction for children, Anne has said:
“I love to write books for people who are curious, interested, hungry for knowledge – people who will respond with wonder, fascination and excitement to finding out about the world or universe around them. Often, they are young people.
The reason I write about things that are true is that I want to share the wonder I feel when I discover something that makes me think ‘Wow! That’s so cool!’ And one reason I write for children is that they are often much more open to wonder and excitement than adults. A child will see a slug and peer at it, poke the slime, imagine being a slug. An adult will chuck it over the fence to eat someone else’s plants. Adults tend to have a pragmatic approach to life and knowledge – what’s it good for? I like to catch readers before they develop too much prag. I’m underdeveloped in the prag department myself, so have a certain affinity with them.”
Anne has recently published ‘The Story of Maps: Putting the World in Perspective’, published by Arcturus, 192pp, ISBN 978-1784048266. Whilst marketed as a book for adults, there’s much inside that a curious teen or younger reader might also enjoy.
This guest post was provided by Anne Rooney. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.