Tag Archive: maps

Apr 18 2020

Book review: Sea monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet van Duzer

sea_monstersA borrowed book for my next review: Sea monsters on Medieval and Renaissance Maps by Chet van Duzer. Mrs H bought this as a by-product of buying a Christmas present on some quirky gifts site.

The book is well-described by its title, it is about sea monsters on medieval and Renaissance maps. Although a couple of classical antecedents are mentioned the main action starts in the 9th century and finishes at the beginning of the 17th century.

The book is organised roughly chronologically without chapters but with sections recorded in the contents – there are approximately 50 sections broken up by four "pictorial excursions". Much of the material is from the 16th century. As we go further back in time fewer and fewer examples of any sort of written or printed materials survive. Prior to 1472 any maps will have been reproduced by hand rather than printed.

Sea monsters were not found universally in maps through this period, in fact they were relatively rare. Adding sea monster was an additional cost and rarely added any useful information. The sea monsters were often drawn separately from the cartographic elements of the map, suggesting they were a specialisation. Sometimes they were direct copies from other sources. Sea monsters were often derived from recent scientific works, and influences can be seen across multiple maps. Sometimes the sea monsters depicted are playing a role in myths or stories such as Jonah and the whale, or the story of Saint Brendan who, on a voyage, is said to have landed on a whale, not realising its nature a fire was lit and the whale sank beneath them.

There is a lot of evidence of artist working from verbal descriptions of animals by non-expert observers. This is at a time before naturalists had been invented so observations of wildlife were not systematic. There’s a great double page spread illustrating the development of drawings of walruses from pretty much elephants to recognisable walruses(see below).


Figure 1: The cartographic career of the Walrus

Sea monsters came in various forms, many reflected real animals we might see today, although rendered strangely as we see with the walrus. Others were human – animal hybrids such as mermaids. Finally there are the outright whimsical – various dragons, krakens, unicorns – owl faced creatures and the like.

Mappamundi were the earliest maps to contain sea monsters although they are not maps as we would recognise them, you couldn’t navigate by them. They were symbolic representations of the world both physical and spiritual, rather than being entirely useful for navigation. A common feature was that the focus in these maps on the land rather than the sea. I was confused by mentions of the Beatus mappamundi which appears in multiple locations before realising that these were copies of a single mappamundi which varied since they were manually created. The place name refers to a particular copy (i.e. Genoa or Manchester), and different copies have different sea monsters. They are based on a map found in the Commentary on the Apocalypse by Beatus of Liébana. This was written sometime in the 8th century and subsequently copied.

The earliest surviving navigational maps are from the 13th century, these are intended as more functional objects and initially focussed on the region around the Mediterranean. In contrast to the mappmundi, these maps were focussed on the sea and coastal areas. There were variants made which clearly played a more decorative role, collectors items that showed your wealth and knowledge. These maps were more likely to contain illustrations of sea monsters.

In addition to freestanding maps there were also illustrated versions of Ptolemy’s Geography which included sea monsters, although the Madrid version of 1455-60 is the only manuscript version to include such sea monsters. Later printed version contained more sea monsters.

The sea monsters in Olaus Magnus’s Nautical chart and description of the Northern lands and Wonders published in 1539 are particularly rich and varied. They can also be found copied in Mercator’s globe of 1541 and Euphrosynus Ulpius’s globe of 1542. Mercator was less eclectic in his collecting of sea monsters for his atlas of 1569.

The book finishes as the 17th century opens when fantastical sea monsters on maps largely fell out of favour to be replaced with more ships and practical illustrations of whaling and the like. The sea was no longer quite so mysterious and man was increasingly exerting control over it, and its contents.

This is a fun book, a nice present for a cartophile. It would have been good to have a timeline of the maps discussed. There is probably an interesting parallel book on the monsters seen in terrestrial maps of the same period.

Jan 30 2020

Book review: How the States got their Shapes by Mark Stein

how_the_statesHow the States got their Shapes by Mark Stein is that book that does exactly what it says on the cover: explain the origin of the shapes of the states of the United States. The book starts with some broad brush strokes that underpin the shaping of many states before going through each State in alphabetical order.

States are not strictly comparable with European nations but it is interesting to compare the never-straight borders of Europe with the regularity of particularly Western states. To a British European the events described in the book are all terribly recent – much of the action occurs during the 19th century! I considered extending this statement to all Europeans but there has been quite a bit of change in national borders in Europe over the last 200 years.

The large scale features of the USA arise from a number of sources. The earliest of these originate from the French and Indian War in the mid-18th century which saw the England and the colonists take the territory around the Great Lakes from the French and subsequently take further land from the French in the Louisiana Purchase. Further to the west territory came from the Spanish and then a newly independent Mexico. The border with Canada was agreed largely at the 49th parallel with the British in 1818. Later the Dutch would cede their territory along the Hudson river and the Spanish the last of their territory in what is Florida.

There are some recurring themes determining the shapes of states, one that comes up repeatedly is the desire for Congress to create States of equal size, in the West there are sets of states with the same height (3o) and width (7o). This concept extended to access to resources, so the ports on the Great Lakes are shared amongst the surrounding States. A second big driving force is slavery, the Missouri Compromise placed a boundary at a latitude of 36o 30′ below which slavery was allowed, and above which it was not. This motivated boundaries of states, and led to a battle to create equal numbers of states above and below the line.

There are irregularities. Boston Corner looks like it should belong in  Massachusetts but is actually in New York state, this is because the terrain made access to Boston Corner from the rest of Massachusetts difficult. In the early days this type of inaccessibility led to lawlessness, so states were willing to cede territory to avoid it. Whole states were created to address potential lawlessness, when gold was discovered in what is now Idaho it was felt too distant from Oregon to be ruled from there with the influx of unruly gold miners. There was also a concern that they would displace the coastal Oregonians from government.

Sometimes a river makes a good boundary although when the river has tributaries things get a bit tricky, it is even worse when borders are defined with reference to “head waters” which are notoriously difficult to locate. The other problem with rivers is that they meander – meaning that chunks of a State may find themselves on the “wrong” side of a river when the river moves. In some cases surveying errors and mistakes in negotiations led to oddly formed borders.

The supersize California and Texas states are a result of their own origins in virtual nationhood. Texas was, for a brief period, an independent country which subsequently joined the Union. California formed with the influx of the miners who came for gold, the Union was more concerned that they join than try to enforce borders upon the new State.

The charters of the original US colonies which later evolved into states typically gave them territories that stretched all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, during the 17th and 18th centuries this was largely moot – colonies scarcely had the wherewithal to maintain small populations on the  Eastern seaboard. The British monarchs granting these charters were not necessarily consistent, or particularly well-advised. So some boundaries are defined by “headwaters” which are notoriously ill-defined.

It is inevitable that the book is a bit repetitive, after all every border has two sides. This is occasionally jarring but usually handled quite well with cross referencing.

Missing from this book is much reference to the Native Americans, they are mentioned as an aside in a few places but little more than that. There is another book in the territories of the Native Americans prior to the European colonisation of the country – I just don’t know where it is! This article on The best books on Native Americans and Colonisers looks like a good place to start.

Overall I quite enjoyed this book, I read most of it on a long train ride. I suspect maps and boundaries are a bit of a niche interest but I feel I also picked up the broad shape of the creation of the USA.

Jan 06 2019

Book review: Mapping Society by Laura Vaughan

mapping_societyMy next review is of Mapping Society: The Spatial Dimensions of Social Cartography by Laura Vaughan. This book covers four broad themes around mapping which are presented in the order in which they first occurred. As well as discussing contemporary material there is some re-analysis in terms of “space syntax”. This is a modern theory of urban spaces which measures things like accessibility and connectedness for road layouts. This feels very familiar to me since I use a similar approach to estimate the age of buildings on the basis of street layout.  

The first theme is the disease map: maps of deaths due to disease, typically during epidemic outbreaks. Snow’s map of cholera deaths around the Broad Street pump in 1853 is the best known of these. His innovation was to use the map to identify the cause of cholera as being waterborne, and to use the map as a device for presenting his case. At the time the prevailing theory of disease was that it was airborne – the miasma theory. Snow’s map was not the first of its type though. Vaughan, wisely, doesn’t get into the discussion of the “first” such map but presents Seaman’s map of yellow fever deaths in New York, dating from 1797 as an early example. She cites a study finding 53 published maps of cholera deaths by 1832.

These maps of disease were used as to motivate the introduction of sanitation laws which became widespread during the middle years of the 19th century.

The second theme is poverty. Maps of disease often included data on sanitation and also poverty. Charles Booth’s work on London towards the end of the 19th century is the most notable in this area, his initial study was repeated 10 years later and then a further 30 years on in a separate survey. The novelty here was to measure levels of poverty in some sort of quantitative way, for this he is sometimes called the first social scientist. The fears of society at the time were that ” the poor” formed a cohesive mass that could rise up. Booth showed this was not the case, the poor were poor in many different ways and for different reasons. Poverty was often found in close proximity to wealth. Work like Booth’s was used to motivate changes in building regulation. Booth observed that irregularity of income was important as well as absolute level. One of the observations from this period is that areas of poverty, often identified at the scale of households, where correlated with inaccessibility – being off the beaten track. The poor were not found on the main streets but rather tucked away in poor housing set back behind better accommodation. New infrastructure such as canals and railways could introduce new pockets of inaccessibility – leading to poverty, or at least attracting the poor to areas thus cut off.

Booth’s work helped to motivate slum clearances and ultimately social security policies such as state pensions. Slum clearances proved to be a mixed benefit, all to often the slum is replaced with more desirable accommodation which displaces the original occupants to be replaced by the slightly more wealthy. The problems that the urban environment engenders can be very persistent. The spatial distribution of deaths in Paris due to cholera in 1849 are quite similar to those from the heatwave of 2003.

The third theme was nationality, race and immigration. These arose around the end of the 19th century, in both San Francisco’s Chinatown area, where the outcome was pretty malign in that Chinese immigration was banned and also in the East End of London, where there was a large influx of Jewish immigrants who came as a result of the Russian progroms. The book cites the Venice Jewish Ghetto, founded in the 16th century and where we get the word “ghetto” from. In the US there were maps of race, W.E.B. du Bois, himself an African-American pioneered this work in Philadelphia.  

The final theme is crime, in fact much of this chapter is about licensed premises. In the latter half of the 19th century the drinking habits of the working classes were of intense concern. In the US this concern eventually led to Prohibition but both the UK and US had temperance movements. In the more distant past, public houses and bars served as the “front room” for poorer families. Their own homes were quite probably overcrowded, unheated and insanitary – the local pub was a warm pleasant place to spend any free time. They were also a place to find work, both legal and illegal.

Vaughan highlights that we don’t see maps of the form found in the 19th century in the late 20th century. Typically maps from this later period are on a larger scale, we don’t see data presented at such high spatial resolution but they cover a wider area. For example, the national census in the UK typically presents data at the Lower Super Output Area scale which covers approximately 1000 dwellings. Sometimes data is available at postcode level, such as the Police.UK crime data, a postcode will typically contain approximately 30 addresses. Devices such as mobile phones mean that high resolution data collection at scale is feasible with more modest resources than previously required. However, we would not publish the data in the manner of the 19th century maps because it is personal information, essentially maps such as Booth’s and Snow’s identify individuals including there health and wealth status.

Mapping Society is a beautifully produced book, with colour figures throughout rather than relegated to central pages, it gives some background to those iconic maps with which many of us are familiar. 

May 06 2017

Book review: Where the Animals Go by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti

animalsgoIt is becoming a tradition for me to receive a beautiful James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti coffee table book for my birthday. A couple of years ago it was The Information Capital, this year it was Where the Animals Go.

Where the Animals Go is a collection of stories and visualisations all relating to the tracking of animals, each story occupies at most a few pages and is accompanied by a couple of maps which trace the paths of one or more of the species in question across the earth. The maps are beautiful.

The book starts with an introduction which covers the evolution of animal tracking technology. The bulk tracking of the movement of animals on an hourly or faster basis has become easier with the advent of commodity GPS devices since the 1990s. Some of these raw data are now being published on aggregation websites such as Movebank.

Precursors to these GPS tracking systems are old-fashioned bird-ringing – a passive technique which relies on recapture of animals and has been around since the early 19th century. The Argos system relies on data from tags being transmitted to a small constellation of satellites – it has lower temporary and spatial resolution than GPS. There are also radio and acoustic tracking methods which have been around from the sixties.

In the text we discover how ants have been tracked in an artificial nest using tiny bar codes, and Daphnia zooplankton have been tracked with fluorescent nanoparticles in a tiny aquarium. Penguin colonies have been identified, and numbers estimated, from satellite imagery of the guano (posh word for poo) that they stand amidst.

I must admit to being a bit of an enthusiast for tracking myself, particularly when out skiing or walking. I used use GPS to geotag my photographs – parenthood has put a stop to such pursuits. I started using GPS about 10 years ago when the process was a bit clunky both in terms of the hardware and the software to process tracks. Nowadays I can record a GPS track on my watch or a mobile phone. So I can easily see how advances in technology relate to advances in the study of animal movement with GPS sensors becoming feasible for ever smaller animals.

After introducing the technology there are then three parts covering animals on the land, in the water and in the air.

The tracks of troops of baboons seemed most similar to the tracks of my Alpine skiing holidays. In this study a number of baboons from the same troop were tracked, this made it possible to see something of the leadership, or otherwise, behaviour of the baboons but this is actually unusual – in most cases a small number of individuals from a group are tracked.

Most entertaining are the tracks of animals who have been relocated for human convenience, and promptly return to the place from whence they came – pythons and crocodiles are in this group. Sadly, I suspect this type of behaviour does not end well for the animals concerned.

Related to this are those animals who live in close proximity to humans and find their why blocked by major highways, mountain lions in California – for example. Animal tracking can show the degree to which major highways cause a problem, and also show the way to solutions in providing corridors.

Sometimes tracking clears animals of what humans consider to be mis-deeds – the tracking, by acoustic sensors, of sharks in Hawaii falls into this category. More benignly it has been discovered that oilbirds in Venezuela did not simply foray out of their nesting caves at night and return at dawn, thus failing to carry out vital ecosystem services such as dispersing seeds. Instead GPS tracking showed that they spent days out in the forest foraging, and roosting in trees.

Generally the animals portrayed are depicted moving in a plane (mathematically speaking) across the land but sometimes they break out into the third dimension – an example is vultures spiralling upwards on thermals. Hang-gliding friends I know would be interested in this. Also included are the bar-headed geese, who migrate across the Himalayas, it turns out they generally stick to the lowest altitudes they can get away with, however they still exhibit great endurance in high altitude flying.

The accompanying text provides detail on what we see in the maps, and also some human interest in the scientists who collected the data.

Another beautiful book, and the references are sufficient for you to go and find out more about any of the individual stories. There is a dedicated website where you can see excerpts of Where the Animals Go.  

Jun 03 2016

Book review: Maphead by Ken Jennings

mapheadMaphead by Ken Jennings is a trip around various groups of people obsessed with maps and things geographic: collectors, makers of fantasy maps, geocachers, paper rally-ers,confluence hunters and so forth. It all makes me feel right at home!

The book starts with Jennings’ own obsession with maps. He pins his obsession to a move, at an early age, to South Korea with his family. His obsession is a plain, common or garden one with much poring over atlases and maps. He also likes toponymics, the naming of places. There are the somewhat obscene, such as Dildo, Newfoundland – my personal favourite of these is “Bresty Haw” (54.326750, –3.008447). There are also the commercial, such as Truth or Consequences in New Mexico. On a more serious note the US renamed a whole pile of places,to mildly less offensive variants such as “Dead Negro Draw”.

An early chapter discusses David Helgren’s 1983 quiz of his University of Miami students which found them to be pretty abysmal at finding even large places, such as Chicago on the map. There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth at this, bemoaning the state of education and in particular the lack of a firm grounding in geography. I was growing up in the early eighties and by that time the rote learning of places was somewhat passé, a private vice that some odd children engaged in. Geography became more the study of systems and ideas. Do we need to learn the capital of Mongolia by rote these days? Probably not, but there is a certain pleasure in knowing all of the US states or the capital cities of all the countries of the world.

The US has a National Geographic Bee where students from across the country compete to be the Queen Bee (or winner). The level of the competition seems pretty high to me. I was bemused to find the scoring scheme for the author’s own quiz at the very end of the book featuring grades of “Terrain Wreck” and “The Atlas Shrugs”.

Collectors of maps have their own chapter, I have ambivalent feelings about this. In some ways it’s just conspicuous consumption but, perhaps with all collecting of this type, is often linked with genuine expertise. Occasionally I have considered buying a complete set Ordnance Survey maps.

The highway obsessives are a group of which I was unaware. It turns out that there are people who photograph the signs on every junction of the US highway system. This has evolved into the Massacre Rally – armchair, map-based rallying! Here the players follower written questions to guide them across the country. Reading the web page I’m just a little bit tempted. The rally is based on the iconic Rand McNally road atlases which I was surprised to learn drove road signage in the US, its surveyors painted their own signage onto telegraph poles in the absence of any official markings.

Geocaching and confluence hunting get chapters of their own related to the travel clubs whose members aim to visit as many countries as possible. Geocaching came in to being when the selective availability on GPS was lifted in 2000, increasing the precision of position finding to domestic users by an order of magnitude, thereby allowing geocachers to share the coordinates of small, hidden caches with the reasonable expectation that they can be found using a GPS handset. Confluence hunters are related in that they visit locations with integer values of latitude and longitude.

The technology of maps has moved on significantly in my life time, GPS has shrunk to the size that it now fits into my watch. I can navigate to any place on earth in Google Maps, and see an overhead view, and for many locations I can also see a view from the street.This leads to interesting new games such as GeoGuessr – guess where you are from a Google Street View.

As an aside we also discover the origin of the idea of the 1:1 scale map, in Lewis Carroll’s novel Syvlie and Bruno which also introduces the idea of paintballing.

The book seems to miss my own personal obsession: filling maps with data. I spent many happy hours finding the triangulation points for Delambre and Mechain’s survey of the meridian through Paris to set the length of the metre. Or my maps of the 2010 General Election results. One of my current great pains is that the LIDAR maps the Environment Agency has released of England and Wales is the gaps in coverage. The absence of Scotland and Northern Ireland from the LIDAR coverage is an abomination in my eyes. 

Maphead is a short read, not particularly challenging and a comforting reminder that there are other people like you (for certain values of you).

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