A 2016 aerial survey of ten sites in Guatemala’s Maya Biosphere Reserve used LIDAR to digitally remove the tree canopy from the landscape, revealing, National Geographic reports, “the ruins of a sprawling pre-Columbian civilization that was far more complex and interconnected than most Maya specialists had supposed”—and one that likely supported a much higher population than previously thought. The survey and its findings are the subject of a documentary special premiering tomorrow on the National Geographic channel. More coverage: CBC News, The New York Times, The Verge, The Washington Post.
Nature: “Glaciologists will soon have a treasure trove of data for exploring how Antarctica’s underbelly has changed over nearly half a century. An international team of researchers has scanned and digitized 2 million records from pioneering aeroplane radar expeditions that criss-crossed the frozen continent in the 1960s and 1970s. […] The digitized data extend the record of changes at the bottom of the ice sheet, such as the formation of channels as Antarctica’s ice flows, by more than two decades.” (Modern radar mapping of Antarctica apparently only began in the 1990s.) [WMS]
This BBC News article leads with a reasonably interesting geographic fact: that Mount Hope, on the Antarctic Peninsula, has been remeasured at 3,239 metres, making it the tallest mountain in territory claimed by the United Kingdom. (Its location is also claimed by Argentina and Chile.) But it’s really about the British Antarctic Survey, who are using stereographic satellite data to create more accurate maps of Antarctica’s mountains for pilots operating on the continent. BAS press release. [Kenneth Field]
Three academic books out this month deal with the subject of mapping, surveying, and empire-building:
The New Map of Empire: How Britain Imagined America before Independence by S. Max Edelson (Harvard University Press) covers the period between the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution. From the publisher:
Under orders from King George III to reform the colonies, the Board of Trade dispatched surveyors to map far-flung frontiers, chart coastlines in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, sound Florida’s rivers, parcel tropical islands into plantation tracts, and mark boundaries with indigenous nations across the continental interior. Scaled to military standards of resolution, the maps they produced sought to capture the essential attributes of colonial spaces—their natural capacities for agriculture, navigation, and commerce—and give British officials the knowledge they needed to take command over colonization from across the Atlantic.
Britain’s vision of imperial control threatened to displace colonists as meaningful agents of empire and diminished what they viewed as their greatest historical accomplishment: settling the New World. As London’s mapmakers published these images of order in breathtaking American atlases, Continental and British forces were already engaged in a violent contest over who would control the real spaces they represented.
The First Mapping of America: The General Survey of British North America by Alex Johnson (I. B. Tauris) seems to cover similar territory, if you’ll pardon the pun, though I have very little information about it. [Amazon]
Finally, Daniel Foliard’s Dislocating the Orient: British Maps and the Making of the Middle East, 1854-1921 (University of Chicago Press) “vividly illustrates how the British first defined the Middle East as a geopolitical and cartographic region in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries through their imperial maps. Until then, the region had never been clearly distinguished from ‘the East’ or ‘the Orient.’ In the course of their colonial activities, however, the British began to conceive of the Middle East as a separate and distinct part of the world, with consequences that continue to be felt today.” [Amazon, iBooks]
Related: Map Books of 2017.
On Tuesday, Jean-François Palomino of the Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec gave a talk on early French mapmaking efforts in the Great Lakes region at the University of Michigan. I missed being able to tell you about it in advance, but student newspaper The Michigan Daily has a writeup. [WMS]
(Palomino is one of the co-authors of Mapping a Continent: Historical Atlas of North America, 1492-1814, the French edition of which is La Mesure d’un continent.)
Jon Wright reviews Charles W. J. Withers’s Zero Degrees:
Related: Map Books of 2017.
Another book I missed at the time of its publication: Charles Drazen’s Mapping the Past: A Search for Five Brothers at the Edge of Empire (William Henemann, August 2016). It’s a family history: Drazin’s grandfather and brothers were military surveyors from rural Ireland “who travelled around the world as officers in the Royal Engineer Corps—surveying, exploring, mapmaking, fighting— in the twilight years of the British Empire.” [WMS]
Cóilín Parsons is the author of The Ordnance Survey and Modern Irish Literature (Oxford University Press, June 2016; Amazon, iBooks), which links the Ordnance Survey of Ireland to the origins of literary modernism in Ireland. Writing in The Irish Times, Parsons makes a larger argument about the cultural impact of the Irish survey, which resulted in large part from the survey’s precise mapping requirements and the need to hire non-cartographic scholars to get the job done—they were mapping aspects of Irish life that had not previously received official attention.
This unlikely assembly came about because the survey was instructed to make a map at a scale of six inches to one mile. The scale might seem unexceptional to anyone who grew up using the survey’s maps, but at the time it was nothing short of revolutionary—it called for enormous maps of frequently sparsely inhabited areas, and at a level of detail never before seen across such a vast expanse of land. How was the survey to gather the information to fill in such detailed maps? The answer was to task not only the engineers of the army, but also a crew of civilian workers under Petrie’s supervision, to both map the physical features of the landscape and also record every possible aspect of the landscape from its placenames (the initial justification for employing Irish language scholars) and archeology to its productive economy.
Out this month from University of Oklahoma Press: Mapping the Four Corners: Narrating the Hayden Survey of 1875 by Robert S. McPherson and Susan Rhoades Neel. From the publisher: “By skillfully weaving the surveyors’ diary entries, field notes, and correspondence with newspaper accounts, historians Robert S. McPherson and Susan Rhoades Neel bring the Hayden Survey to life. Mapping the Four Corners provides an entertaining, engaging narrative of the team’s experiences, contextualized with a thoughtful introduction and conclusion.” Buy at Amazon. [WMS]
See also: Map Books of 2016.
- Scottish newspaper The Courier has a somewhat belated piece on the 80th anniversary of the Ordnance Survey’s trig pillars.
The Ordnance Survey are marking the 80th anniversary of the Retriangulation of Great Britain, which began on this day in 1936. More from BBC News. Events include the Trig Pillar Trail Challenge, which invites people to post pictures to social media of one of 25 selected trig (triangulation) pillars (the #TrigPillar80 hashtag is very busy this morning). There are Flickr galleries of various trig pillars from Flickr user Andrew (who took the one above in 2013) and (of course) the Ordnance Survey.
Another mapmaker is getting a book-length biography. The Measure of Manhattan, Marguerite Holloway’s biography of surveyor John Randel, Jr. (1787-1865), whose decade-long survey of the island of Manhattan was the basis for that city’s street grid, comes out in February. Via BLDGBLOG, who blurbed it: “Marguerite Holloway’s engaging survey takes us step by step through the challenges of obsolete land laws and outdated maps of an earlier metropolis, looking for—and finding—the future shape of this immeasurable city.” Buy at Amazon | publisher’s page
When Rachel Hewitt‘s Map of a Nation was published in the U.K. in 2010, I despaired of ever being able to lay hands on a copy easily. A book documenting the first century or so of the history of the Ordnance Survey, Britain’s national map-making body, is not likely to have much commercial potential outside Britain: no surprise that a U.S. edition has not come out. But I recently discovered that, like at least one other book otherwise unavailable on this continent, it is available to North Americans as an ebook (and has been for a year: see how observant I am). So spent the $10, downloaded it to my Kindle, and settled in to read a book I’d heard about for years but didn’t imagine I’d be able to lay hands on without some effort.
Inasmuch as a history of field surveying and copper-plate engraving can be made anything other than dull, Hewitt has managed to produce a narrative that fairly crackles with interest. She starts at the bloody Battle of Culloden, not only as a way of setting the stage for the Military Survey of Scotland, a predecessor to the OS, but also as a rationale for mapping the whole of Britain’s territory in the first place. From there we’re led through the Scottish Highlands, joint French-British observations to measure the distance between their observatories, the triangulation of Britain and the survey of Ireland. The narrative closes with the publication of the last maps of the First Series and the expansion of the OS’s works into city maps. Along the way we get glimpses into the equipment used in the survey, such as the theodolite, and the mapmaking process; there’s a lovely section on how the OS dealt with Irish placenames, and digressions into art and poetry.
It does read a bit traditionally, in the sense that it is an institutional history seen through the lens of those in charge. It’s a history of those making the maps; the impact of those maps is less thoroughly covered. And if you ask me, it ends too soon—just as the OS is getting started. A lot more could still be written, I think.
Wired UK reports on how an OpenStreetMap contributor got arrested in Reading after “a paranoid guy called the police.” (Here’s the contributor’s own take.)
On-the-ground surveying with a GPS is a great way to contribute to OpenStreetMap, but it’s not hard to see how it might be construed as suspicious activity. The problem isn’t actually the GPS, which is inconspicuous enough unless you’re staring at it every five seconds, it’s the note-taking that goes along with it. Even here in Shawville, when we were surveying a couple of residential streets, one of Jennifer’s co-workers spotted us and later asked us what the hell we had been doing. We were writing down house numbers to add to the map — but stopping every few metres to write down the house number at each corner does look a bit odd. So does taking a photo of every street sign (to confirm road names independently of third-party mapping data). It helps to be as discreet and non-creepy as possible.
Fortunately, it’s a small town and we’re known, so we haven’t run into any serious trouble yet. If asked, I usually explain that I’m mapping the town for a website called OpenStreetMap, which is like Wikipedia for maps: everybody runs around with a GPS to create a map of the world. (At that point their eyes usually glaze over.)