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Orientation
When you have a map in front of you, you might first want to figure out “which way is up” and “where is this place?”

 

On almost all maps north is “up,” at the top of the page (yes, including those made in the southern hemisphere). Many maps include a directional arrow or compass to more precisely indicate the map’s cardinal orientation. You will notice that on many 16th- and 17th-century maps the compass part of the map is richly illustrated and is often a commanding piece of artwork in itself. Some maps also include a latitude and longitude grid overlaid on the map itself, or running around the border of the map. In addition to directional information, if you know latitude and longitude information then you can figure out quite precisely what part of the world the map is illustrating.

 

Title, Date
Most maps include a title and sometimes a date. The rhetorical style of titling on historical maps often exceeds the merely descriptive: for example, Herman Moll, a famous Dutch mapmaker working in London, titles his 1732 map, “A New and Exact Map of the Coast, Countries, and Islands within the Limits of the South Sea Company, from ye River Aranoca to Terra del Fuego, and from thence through ye South Sea, to ye North Part of California &c. with a View of the General and Coasting Trade-winds and Particular Draughts of the Most Important Bays, Ports &c.” Moll was not alone among mapmakers either in wordiness nor in taking the opportunity of the title to assert the reliability of their handiwork.

 

Scale
How big is the place shown on this map? What’s the distance between points on the map? How far is it from one end of the island to the other? How long is that road? Most recent maps (those made after the 18th century) include a scale. The scale is a reader’s key to the mathematical principles that the mapmaker used to shrink the representation of space, size, and distance. Most map scales are pretty easy to understand: at their simplest they consist of a linear bar with distance equivalents written beneath. Thus the map scale might be something such as “1 inch = 250 miles.” This means that every linear inch on the page equals 250 miles in “reality”: a road drawn on the map as about an inch-and-a-half long represents a road that is almost 400 miles long in reality.

 

On the oldest surviving maps, however, it is harder to answer questions of scale and distance. Art historians tell us that principles of “proportionality” and “perspective” didn’t work their way into the Western art tradition until the late 15th century. Uniform scales didn’t routinely appear as part of the mapmaker’s art until then. Thus on old maps, size relationships between objects often appear to our modern sensibility to be wildly distorted or fanciful. For example, a ship on the ocean might be drawn at twice the size of a mountain on the coastline. All maps represent a balance between artistic representation and geographic fidelity. On older maps, the balance seems to lie more in favor of artistic license.

 

Key/ Legend
Mapmakers often use symbols or codes to represent certain features. For example, on a city map, a cross might indicate a hospital or on a landscape map, swamps might be marked by a series of dashed lines. Many maps include a “key” or “legend” that explains what the map symbols mean. Inclusion of a key or legend is more typical on modern maps than old maps, but some symbolization is included on almost all maps. Sometimes the symbols are fanciful and can be read as miniature art pieces in their own right.

 

Map traditions often reflect particular needs, skills and local materials. The Polynesians, for example, from the 5th century BCE through 500 CE were great sea voyagers. They routinely crossed the vast expanses of the Pacific, establishing trade and communications routes and migrating across thousands of miles with none of the paraphernalia of paper maps, compasses, or sextants that later European trans-Pacific explorers relied on. Instead, the Polynesian seafarers developed three-dimensional stick-and-reed maps that marked currents, winds, and key navigational points. These maps were typically made of strips of coconut leaf stems or pandanus root on a frame: strips which were curved show the altered direction of swells deflected by an island, and their intersection an area of confused sea—a valuable indicator of position. Island currents may be shown by short straight pieces. The stick-charts from the Marshall Islands, below, were used to teach and record the swells of the sea itself, a science that is largely unknown outside the Pacific. These charts are not maps in a Western sense: cowrie shells woven into the charts might signify islands, but they could often be taken to be any island; distances were quite arbitrary, and charts were meaningless without the guidance of their maker. What these maps show is the nature of swell movement and general principles of the relationships of ocean currents and waves to land masses and winds.

      

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