The Power of Maps

…and a really famous Belgian

power of maps

She didn’t even have a fancy cartouche¹. A few simple words was all it took. “Norse ruins” in the map legend got us going; the sight of “Norse church ruin” and we were done for. For she was telling us that there were items of possible interest all around, demanding to be located and investigated. Little did I know that my vulnerability to seduction-by-map would last a lifetime and that at various times it would drive me into the arms of libraries for lengthy periods of study. For I was a would-be mathematician, with little need for libraries and what they contained. How wrong I was.

The image, from the Danish Geodetic Institute’s 1:250,000 1968 Nanortalik area map, shows our base camp area surrounded by Norse ruins and that very near, on the north shore of Taserssuaq, were the ruins of a Norse church. Richard and I set off and over a couple of days explored and investigated what we could find, making notes and taking photos as we went. The end result was a few pages in the expedition report; but the real benefit of our explorations came when I discovered that there was pleasure to be gained through delving into the depths of the University library. Volumes of Meddelelser om Grønland² were perused and the 1894 work of Gustav Holm discovered, along with an early sketch of Qinguadalen and The Cardinal. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me a project to focus on, for it was a relatively miserable year in other respects. The novelty of university life had worn off and after our wonderful Greenland experiences life seemed dull and was devoid of half our group, who had moved on.

Interesting maps contain a story well told. Often only part of a story perhaps, but one that can be just as gripping as a good novel, with the reader charged with interpreting the narrative of the maps to further understand the evidence on the ground. My interests have grown in the area of landscape history and some of the results can be seen here. Many hours have been spent poring over maps.  Much of the blame and all of the credit belongs to the National Library of Scotland, for their world class map resources are available on-line and to all. People might have differing opinions of the golden age of maps but there is a strong case to say that it is right now! Have a look at Pont’s maps of Scotland made in the 1580’s and 1590’s ; the early road maps of Taylor and Skinner (1776) or the wealth of detail in the first edition Ordnance Survey (1850’s) and much, much more, including georeferencing of old maps and modern maps or satellite images.

…and a really famous Belgian? Geradus Mercator (1512 -1594) of course – and shame on those compilers of lists of famous Belgians that don’t include him. For me, Mercator knocks Eddy Merckx into second place with Audrey Hepburn, Hergé and Adolphe Sax following on!

¹ See an example of a fancy cartouche here!
² Meddelelser om Grønland can be found in various locations, for example here (with maps and numerous illustrations at the end of the volume).