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Cartography 101

Map making. So where did all of this start anyway. We have taken it for granted the ability to find our location and our destination at a moment’s whim – utilizing our smartphones and nearly precise navigation tools, like Google Maps.



Paspardo r. 29, topographic composition, 4th millennium BCE


It’s not easy to identify the first of anything. I’m sure there is some biases based on a Eurocentric history, but I’ll see if I can piece together a number of examples, motivations, and perspectives on map making and the physical manifestation of the representation of space.


The term Cartography comes from Greek, translating to “papyrus, sheet of paper, or map.” Loosely it is defined as the practice of making maps.


“Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.”


Sounds like a reasonable thing to explore. The first question being ‘where am I, where are we going, or What is over there.” A map has to be created. Some historians and archaeologists point to the earliest maps actually showing the constellations and stars, a series of points used to navigate at night. We’ll get to those later.



The Bedolina Map and its tracing, 6th–4th century BCE


In cartography, one is limited in the full representation of space. In the mark-making that becomes the representation of the space in question, the creators own bias, perspective, and goals will be accentuated, while other factors will be eliminated. It’s a strategy of creating a readable map, one that highlights specific key elements for navigation.

But here are the fundamental problems and risks:


· Agenda: Traits may be physical, such as roads or land masses, or may be abstract, such as toponyms or political boundaries.

· Generalization: Eliminating characteristics of the mapped object that are not relevant to the map's purpose.

· Reduction: Reducing the complexity of the characteristics that will be mapped.

· Design: Orchestrating the elements of the map to best convey its message to its audience.

· Projections: Representing the terrain of the mapped object on flat media.


I believe that our understanding of space, place, and land has been determined by the history of cartography and the representation made through maps. Map making has determined identity, explained undermined marginalized communities, and commodified landscape.


I’m curious to understand the lineage of map making, it’s traits and agendas and the systemic harm it has done to people and the larger environment. Are maps harmful? What is a good map? How do we learn from this?



Çatalhöyük 'Map' Mural: a 10-foot-wide wall painting of the town and two peaks, sometimes referred to as the world’s oldest map. Some scientists question this interpretation and argue that the mural, dating to around 6600 BC, is more likely a decorative geometric design instead of a map

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© 2020 by J. Matthew Thomas

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