24 March 2018

Research: Mapping Our Way To Understanding

Here in the UK we are fortunate to be able to pore over Ordnance Survey maps of the entire country, rural and urban alike. Each map shows, via simple icons, a welter of detail beyond the topographical: modern, historical, and prehistoric. 

They helped me build an entire series of weekend walks, and I’ve relied on them heavily for my fiction, especially the Torc of Moonlight trilogy, which has its watery roots in those written walks. I don’t own a satnav, but carry a copy of the Ordnance Survey’s book of road maps in the family car and prefer to navigate rather than drive, pointing out items of interest not immediately seen from the road: Medieval castles, Iron Age ring-forts, Roman road routes, Prehistoric barrows.

What did people do before the first of these maps were commissioned in the 18th century? They improvised.

Maps have always been produced. Think of a stick carving lines in damp mud or sand, the detail being passed orally. Later those details were often written into charters. I came one upon such example recently while viewing a YouTube rendition of a 1981 BBC history programme In Search of Athelstan led by a young Michael Wood full of hands-on enthusiasm.

For a bit of context, Athelstan was the grandson of King Alfred the Great. It was Athelstan who, in the 900s, made his grandfather’s dream of a united England a reality. As kings did in those and later days, he rewarded his supporters with estates of land. Between 25-32mins into the programme, Michael Wood walks the boundary of one such estate by following the wording of its charter alongside a modern Ordnance Survey map of the area. The fact that he still could, over 1,000 years later, is at first nothing short of miraculous, even down to pointing to listed hedgerows and named streams. Yet is it?

I find the Mappa Mundi in Hereford Cathedral awe-inspiring, even though I’ve not yet laid eyes on it in person. Dating from around 1300, it is believed to be the largest medieval map still in existence (1.59 x 1.34 metres / 64 x 52 inches). Inked on a single piece of calfskin, it shows the world as it was then understood.

Christian maps of this era always place Jerusalem at the centre and the east at the top, but once you get your eye in the detail is spectacular and very recognisable. Britain is at the bottom left. 

Check out the digital version HERE, and be sure to highlight the colour-enhanced version showing how bright it would have looked when first commissioned. There is also a 15 minute explanatory video from History West Midlands fronted by an image of the beautiful Hereford Cathedral, itself dating from 1079.

Not all maps were undertaken by the great and the good. When I was a Native American re-enactor I saw reproductions of powder horns engraved with topographical maps, mostly river systems, for use by trappers known as Mountain Men.

They weren’t the only people who used this type of utility map. Left is an image of a powder horn dating from the American Revolutionary War showing a map of Charlestown and Boston, including named wharfes and gun batteries, which belonged to a British soldier, “E.B.” of His Majesty’s 47th Foot.

Along with handily dating it, 1775, “E.B.” added the inscription A Pox on rebels in ther crymes. Not a man to cross, then. Perhaps he didn’t want to be there.

Map reproduction is courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, where close-ups of this image and others can be viewed HERE.

The most modern, and a map that never fails to impress, comes from the International Space Station showing planet Earth. YouTube has a number of real-time and time-lapse runs. I’ve chosen one at random. May you find it very, very restful and glad you're living now and able to view it.

All images are reproduced via Creative Commons licensing.


  1. Reading a map is a skill that not everyone has. I wonder if the hesitancy to ask for clarification/ direction has existed from the beginning of time. I suppose it may have been helpful if you were an "explorer".

    1. LOL! My husband will drive miles rather than ask a pedestrian! I have to admit, though, that I'm a bit crap having to do it with only a compass. Lack of practice.

      The worst episode was a few years ago when my son was driving himself and two mates to East Midlands airport (me sitting in the back to return the car once they'd flown). It is no problem, all motorways... until there was a major accident blocking the route and a deadline for the plane. Son exited onto normal roads while he could and I passed the map to the person in the passenger seat. "Er, I can't use that. Don't you have satnav?" Same with his other mate. I was appalled. Needless to say I took the map back - 4 miles to the inch - and navigated through Nottingham (a major city, and yes, of Robin Hood, though it has changed a little since his day). Only my son wasn't gobsmacked.

      All I can say is God help these youngsters when the power fails.