The New History of Cartography

By Harley, J. B. | UNESCO Courier, June 1991 | Go to article overview

The New History of Cartography


Harley, J. B., UNESCO Courier


IN the beginning there were maps. There has always been a mapping impulse in individual consciousness. The sensing of space and the development of cognitive structures to understand it can be traced from the earliest societies to the present. It was, however, only with the first visible act of cartographic representation--the drawing of a map on whatever medium was to hand--that a documented step in abstract thinking initiated the history of cartography.

By substituting an analogical space for a real space in the process of mapping, human beings acquired intellectual mastery over their world. In many societies maps preceded both writing and mathematical notation. Only much later in the nineteenth century were they associated with the modern disciplines we now call cartographyc. Yet maps produced before then penetrate to the deepest roots of our culture.

What may be regarded as the oldest authenticated map in the world, dated to approximately 6000 BC, was unearthed in an archaeological excavation at Catal Huyuk in west-central Turkey in 1963. Its subject was the neolithic town of that name. Painted on a wall, it showed the streets and houses in plan form, lying beneath the profile of the mountain of Hazan Dag with its volcano erupting. But though this map, which shows a layout corresponding to that of the excavated tow, bears some resemblance to a modern plan, its purpose was very different. The site from which it was excavated was a shrine of holy room, and the image was created as part of a ritual act, as a "product of the moment", and not inteded to last beyond that event.

A Eurocentric vision

Only in recent years have maps such as that of Catal Huyuk--and comparable engravings and paintings in the rock art of Africa, the Americas, Asia, and Europe--been studied as a distinctive category of prehistoric cartography. That this should be so is not merely a reflection of problems of identifying maps in these early cultures. It is also an expression of a more deep-seated tendency in the history of cartography that has restricted the canon of "acceptable" maps.

From the nineteenth century the history of cartography has been portrayed largely as that of a Western tradition, originating in the ancient Near East, Egypt, and in the Greco-Roman era, and reaching its culmination via a European pedigree in the developed world of today. Though interrupted in the Middle Ages, and exhibiting both minor reversions and major revolutions, that cartrographic history was seen as proceeding developmentally fromj simple forms toward a more advanced level of numerical application.

Maps were assigned a position in the evolutionary sequence. The corollary was to exclude from serious study those mays judged to show no signs of progress toward the goal of objectivity. Even some of the earlier maps of European culture, like the great world maps of the Christian Middle Ages, were once dismissed as being unworthy of study. Thus, at the beginning of the present century, Charles Raymond Beazley could describe two of the most celebrated world maps of the later Middle Ages, the Hereford and Ebstorf maps as "non-scientific...monstrosities", and write of their "complete futility".

Maps in non-European cultures were considered even further alienated from the epicentre of cartography. Traditional approahces of the history of Islamic cartography, for example, reflect this tendency of European scholars to see the world in their own image. The maps of Islam were explained largely as a Greek heritage, ignoring the extent to which translations into Arabic of works such as Ptolemy's Almagest and Geographia had been ingeniously appropriated and adapted to the specific purposes of Islamic culture and religion. Arab maps such as those of the Balkhi School of geographers in the tenth century were assessed by a Ptolemaic yardstick rather than being understood as a fusion of mapping traditions, even though they embodied Persian as well as Greek elements. …

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