Maps: How One Travels Far

MikeachimThe Everyday15 Comments

Come with me into my dream home.

Yes, there’s a lot of wood. I like wood.

(Wooden flooring, so don’t go running around in your socks, there isn’t a doctor on this island. Do you like how the floorboards creak? Creaking is important. It adds character, and also you can tune each floorboard carefully so you can judge exactly where a burglar is. And you can spring-load certain ones to flip up like trebuchets, hurling intruders into the kitchen where you’ve positioned a row of serrated..look, my point isn’t that I’ve DONE these things, that would be paranoid and I’m NOT a paranoid recluse, despite what people say. AHAHA. Just….just step through this, will you? Yes, I got it from the TSA, it was damaged for some reason. OK, you’re clean. But I knew that already, my good friend YES, PUT THE BAG THROUGH AS WELL! NOW!…thank you. We’re good. We’re fine. Relax, buddy, you passed).

My dream home is pimped out in all sorts of cutting-edge ways, and it has an aquarium that loops three times round the house, upstairs and downstairs, giving its occupants a fantastic world to roam in. And there’s lots of weird furniture, and I’ve gone for a whisky cellar instead of a wine cellar, and all that’s just scratching the surface…

But the first things you notice are the maps.

The walls are covered with them. Some are behind glass, some are tapestry, some are new and laminated, some crumple and rustle when you flatten a palm against them. Maps are everywhere.

I’m obsessed with maps. When I saw National Geographic had released a century of their on 8 CD-ROMS  – 8! How can anyone fill *8* CDs? – and it arrived from eBay, my head exploded. (When I purchased the 120-year box set my head exploded again. That was a bad year for my head). I’ve “read” – if that’s the word – around 20 maps so far. There’s a hundred or so left. That’s a good feeling, right there.

Map Of Middle Earth, by NightRPStar - Flickr

Reading The Lord Of The Rings using Barbara Strachey’s incredible Journeys Of Frodo made it as exciting as first exploring Middle Earth in the shade of my backporch in Cyprus, occasionally leaping up to gaze teary-eyed at the huge laminated maps we had hanging up indoors (a copy of one of which I was lucky enough to find on Flickr, above). Fantasy novels drew me because of the maps and the world-building – then, roleplaying games. While my more mechanically-minded friends worked on finding the perfect rule system (AD&D haters that we all were), I spent my time drawing maps for stories I’d never tell. Give a young lad a generously-margined exercise book and a ballpoint pen and he’ll probably doodle space-ships. I doodled coastlines.

Now I’ve discovered what seemed impossible as a child – that the real world is even more fascinating.

But are maps dying?

I’ve seen this question online, and more than once. With the ascendency of Google Maps and GPS and TomTom and free satellite imagery and the billions of associated gadget apps, are the kinds of maps that slither out of National Geographic Magazine rendered obsolete? Are we the last generation that will know what an atlas is? And if so, should we care?

You’ll be unsurprised to learn my answers are no, they’re not dying, yes, we still need them, and if you want to take down the world of subjective mapping, you’re going to have to go through me to do it (every scrawny, puny stone of me).

I know I’m biased – but there’s also a logical argument behind it, which I learned while studying archaeology.

When archaeologists have sated themselves on the rich, thrilling gluttony of destruction that is cross-sectioning a feature, the time of recording is upon them. Archaeology is a scientific discipline that requires meticulous recording of all that is done, and everything has a plan. ‘We dig this down to here and then we record it.’ Then a cage is unlocked and the excavators leap out, frothing and gibbering and waving their corroded 4″ WHS trowels at anyone who gets too near. They launch themselves at the ground, and soil and debris fountain up like blood from a nicked artery, while specially trained marksmen called supervisors wait by the sides of the trench, nervously fingering tranquilizer guns. They’re waiting for the moment when the job is done and the animals must be restrained. They always dread it. It can get ugly.

There are two ways that sectioned archaeological features are recorded – they’re photographed, and they’re drawn. But isn’t that a waste of time? Why spend ages hunched over a planning frame while the rain comes down, scratching grey lines onto a muddy smear of permatrace, when you can take a photo and have done with it? Isn’t that what photos are for?

No, it’s not a waste of time – and you understand this whenever you use a street-map.

Map of Belgrade, by tamburix - Flickr

If you have a handheld gadget that accesses Google Maps, next time you’re in an unfamiliar city, switch off all the overlays and try to navigate using the satellite images alone. In other words, just using the photographs. Having issues? What’s your problem? It’s all there. In fact, there’s more raw data there than any map in existence.

Problem is, it’s raw data. You’re not suffering from information overload – it’s just that it’s unprocessed, uninterpreted code. That’s photographs for you – they capture everything, largely regardless of whether you want to see it or not (which I’ve talked about elsewhere). Maps, on the other hand, capture only what’s important to you, and then they emphasize it. Maps are highly selective, pointing your attention towards this at the expense of that. The people who decide what’s important are the map-makers, and so their maps are a peek inside their heads, at what’s important to them. Maps, in short, have personality. They’re stories for you to step into as the main character.

And there’s why I get enthusiastic. Because I *love* stories.

So do archaeologists. An excavation is a tale told by debris. Between the beginning and the end are phases of construction and deposition, uncovered in reverse. Archaeologists are human beings (well, many of them are) with their own sets of influences and biases and agendas both obvious and hidden, and every interpretation they put together will subjectively theirs. Since they’re skilled and knowledgeable (again with the ‘many’ thing), their opinions are well worth capturing. The best way to do it is let them scribble and rant and draw pictures of what they think they can see. That’s the filter we can assess the raw data with, to understand what coming out the ground and how it fits into the site’s narrative….

This is why we still need maps. Let’s have maps on our gadgets (which is why I wish The Cartographer every success). Maps teach us about the world in ways satellite footage never could – but the two belong side by side, one reinforcing the other. We need maps the same way we need signs on roadsides. It’s not enough to see what’s there – we need to know what we’re looking at, which helps us understand what we’re looking for.

So if I ever build my dream home, it’ll be wallpapered with maps. Nat Geo, Ordnance SurveyStrange Maps, and on and on. Come round, why don’t you? I know there are man-traps everywhere, and you don’t want to step on those floorboards that will catapult you into oblivion, but it’s ok…I’ll draw you a map.

Images: NightRPStar, tamburix and mihi_tr.

  • I love antique maps but as art…

    • Mikeachim

      You’d have been in heaven seeing this, which I caught a little of when I was in London last.

  • I came for the Lord of the Rings references, but I stayed for the intelligent consideration of the necessities of maps in today’s world.

    • Mikeachim

      Nice of you to say. :)

      If the intelligent considerations ever wane, I’m can post more LOTR maps. I’m not above using bribery to paper over the holes in my work…

  • I agree with all your sensible and fantastical takles on maps. I will even invent maps if I find there are not enough places for all my ideas. Congratulations on you great Christmas present to yourself!

  • I’m obsessed with maps!

  • Jimbo

    ‘There are two ways that sectioned archaeological features are recorded:’ WELL and BADLY. Which did you do Mike?

    We also draw things because photographing is merely a case of recording what can be ‘seen’. Drawing is a means of defining the experience of the context: the feel, sound, texture etc. Also a pencil line and a piece of permatrace work in the rain/snow/flood/sludge/toxic waste – and it’s archivally stable (just about).

    As for maps – well they’re a means of codifying the landscape. A means of control and ownership. Have a look at the OS in Scotland and Ireland for instance.

  • You are telling Noah about the Flood — love me some maps. Have about a half dozen old ones framed up (in storage) back home. Great wall art. And I’ve given another half dozen as presents.

  • Kirsten

    Mike, I looove maps as well. Especially vintage ones. And have also dreampt of wallpapering a room with them. In my dream, I will also have a room wallpapered with my fav Nat Geo articles!

  • This is so cool Mike! Unfortunately I am directionally challenged, and even with a map I tend to find myself lost… but I do manage to find my way. Usually.

  • Maps are wonderful to point you in the proper direction AND to cover holes in the walls. Of course, I do love my Google maps on the iPhone, too.

  • Cam

    I found a great map from 1561 (well, it was a print) while in Halifax a few years ago. It’s such a cool map that I had mounted on a board and now its the center piece in our guest room. There’s something really cool about a map that didn’t know that western Canada/USA existed!

  • I love looking at old maps and seeing how man made boundaries have been redrawn. Yugoslavia, East and West Germany no longer exist – but from not so long ago they do.

  • I once saw a diary that belonged to my grandfather who i never saw, he passed on before i was born. It had the old maps drawn in the early 1900’s i just loved that little diary.

  • Aly

    There is one world where the mighty paper map still rules, though it’s called a chart! Even with all the GPS technology out there the charts drawn over a 100yrs ago often are much more accurate! Specially along coastlines where a country moves the GPS positions a little for “security” reasons, a mile can make a big difference between water under your boat or hitting rock bottom! :) Great article!