Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Fast forward from clay tablets

Maps & Civilization: Cartography in Culture and Society. Third edition. / Norman J.W. Thrower. Published by the University of Chicago Press, 2008. Originally published 1972. 352 pages, illustrated.

Maps & Civilization, with sample illustrations of maps in each of nine chapters, begins with the first comprehensive diagrams we know of from pre-literate times. Depicting natural phenomena in an organized manner with bent reeds and shells actually spoke volumes to early explorers in canoes who used them: it was the technological communication of the day. The author progresses through history from classical antiquity when visual representation of a place might have been incised onto a rock or clay tablet. At present, information on all levels be it political, private, weather, lunar, event, pictorial, geological, demographic, and other thematic, is exploited to produce a vast array of maps on paper and in digital form.

This clay tablet was made in ancient times. The image is from a wikipedia article entitled, "Babylonian Map of the World".

Visual communication systems are possible from innovations in technology, but technology is only half the story. Maps representing evidence of a discovery must be shared at large. Perhaps two poignant recent historical examples would be those maps drawn of the South Pole by Ralph Falcon Scott in 1911 or of Mount Everest in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tensing Sherpa as they climbed the summit.

The book offers a resource of the many ideas that maps illustrate for the public. The original manuscript was published much before computers were common among map users (1972)--- a fact that doesn’t diminish, but enhances the message delivered by his survey of map-making. Maps, like news articles, proliferate because of existing knowledge in a particular culture. Lately we think first of gps and of the interactive maps online we can easily access. Do you agree that the ideas began on paper? Take a look at the isometric map of New York City crafted by Hermann Bollmann for the World’s Fair a couple of years later in 1964.

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