These three amazingly beautiful and useful maps from around the world widen our cartographic experience, show us new ways to depict geography, and teach us that varying traditions of map making all had one thing in common: they help us understand our world.
List of Maps
Marshall Islands Stick Chart [33:01]
Coastal Map of Shandong, Zhili, and Shengjing
This is a Chinese scroll map painting, captured in 6 separate images on the Library of Congress site in order to fit in the whole length of it. Historically these kinds of scrolls depicted stories, epics, activities, and generally just daily life and, unlike posters of maps from the Western world that are meant to be seen on a wall, these are meant to be seen only occasionally. This is a Makimono scroll, meaning it’s in a landscape orientation. The way the lines curve and move harmoniously on this map--your eyes follow along, horizontally--and, even with the repetitive symbology, you just want to continue looking along the length of it. It’s also an informational map, however, with a good balance of labels to features.
The labels show where certain guards and river forts are, and could have been useful for military purposes. When we first looked at this we were trying to figure out if the blue swirls that dominate the top half of the scroll are mountains or ocean waves but a lot of these maps, like this one, face the ocean with land on the bottom, which is typical in this era and so it seems clear on further inspection that the curvy symbols are beautiful ocean waves. This long-form map style is a great format for any kind of linear feature that you are trying to map, whether a coastal area, a riverine area, or a mountain range.
The way you associate with the geography on this map allows you to really view it as a type of story in contrast with a birds’ eye view map. It also is a much more useful way of looking at a coastline for certain purposes. Also, hats off to the person who’s effort went into making those waves! Every map has an artistry to it and this one reminds us of that fact. Maps are more than just data and information, they are things that we use to tell people the story of that data, and if they aren’t designed well then people won’t look at them or understand them, and that is why aesthetics in mapping matter.
The Ottoman Mappa Mundi of Haci Ahmet
“Holy cannoli this is just beautiful!” may have been uttered about this label-rich, information-filled map. Notably, all of this beauty is achieved with just black line-work. It’s a very large map on 10 pages pasted together, or 36” by 36”. This was not an original of Haci Ahmet, probably a pseudonym, who translated it into Turkish in 1559. The reason for the translation was to give it to Ottoman princes, who may have been searching for locations to colonize at the time. It’s in a heart-shaped projection called cordiform that we don’t see too often today.
The label that stretches all the way down the coast from North America to the end of South America is wonderful and is representative of the rest of the labels on this map in that they all carefully follow the contours of the geography. A lot of the line fills and stipple patterns are expected of woodcut maps like this but it is also surprisingly detailed. Some speculation as to the name of the opposum-fish-like creature in the lower-left celestial sphere happens. It is noted that a common style of angry fish is also included on that sphere. Map monster names and meanings are discussed.
Marshall Islands Stick Chart
These stick charts were made to aid in navigation for the outrigger canoers of the Marshall Islands. These islands consist of over a thousand individual islands or islets so one can imagine how nice it would be to have knowledge of those island locations in the form of charts like these. They’re made from the center spines of coconut fronds that are connected by shells that represent islands.
While this map style is quite different from what cartographers are used to seeing and creating in the modern day, they are exactly what maps are supposed to be--spatial references of the world, helping us understand the world, and giving us the means to share that information. Furthermore, using woody materials and shells to create symbology is just really cool. The coconut sticks represent ocean patterns, which is important in a region where a multitude of islands disrupt the regular ocean current.
While it is purported that only the individual map maker could use one of these maps, we feel like this may not be completely true as evidenced by the common symbology, methods, and materials used in the stick charts across the islands. These maps were made from the time of the 2,000 BC all the way up until WWII in this region and we surmise that the information that these maps provided must have had a lot of significance for the thriving of an island grouping like this.