The Map Archive - a guide to digitalized old and modern maps

Since the early days of humanity, people have created maps. At the beginning very simple, and later more and more complex.

A map is a simplified depiction of a space which highlights relations between components (objects, regions) of that space. Most usually a map is a two-dimensional, geometrically accurate representation of a three-dimensional space; e.g., a geographical map. More generally, maps can be devised to represent any local property of the world or part of it, or any other space, such as the brain.

Map-making dates back to the Stone Age and appears to predate written language by several millennia. One of the oldest surviving maps is painted on a wall of the Catal Huyuk settlement in south-central Anatolia (now Turkey); it dates from about 6200 BC. One who makes maps professionally or privately is called a cartographer.

Geographic maps are abstract representations of the world. It is, of course, this abstraction that makes them useful. Lewis Carroll made this point humorously in Sylvie and Bruno with his mention of a fictional map that had "the scale of a mile to the mile". A character notes some practical difficulties with this map and states that "we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well". This concept is elaborated in a one-paragraph story by Jorge Luis Borges, generally known in English as "On Exactitude in Science".

Road maps are perhaps the most widely used maps today, and form a subset of navigational maps, which also include aeronautical and nautical charts, railroad network maps, and hiking and bicycling maps. In terms of quantity, the largest number of drawn map sheets is probably made up by local surveys, carried out by municipalities, utilities, tax assessors, emergency services providers, and other local agencies. Many national surveying projects have been carried out by the military, such as the British Ordnance Survey (now a civilian government agency internationally renowned for its comprehensively detailed work).

Many but not all maps are drawn to a scale, allowing the reader to infer the actual sizes of, and distances between, depicted objects. A larger scale shows more detail, thus requiring a larger map to show the same area. For example, maps designed for the hiker are often scaled at the ratio 1:24,000, meaning that 1 of any unit of measurement on the map corresponds to 24,000 of that same unit in reality; while maps designed for the motorist are often scaled at 1:250,000. Maps which use some quality other than physical area to determine relative size are called cartograms.

A famous example of a map without scale is the London Underground map, which best fulfils its purpose by being less physically accurate and more visually communicative to the hurried glance of the commuter. This is not a cartogram (since there is no consistent measure of distance) but a topological map that also depicts approximate bearings. The simple maps shown on some directional road signs are further examples of this kind.

In fact, most commercial navigational maps, such as road maps and town plans, sacrifice an amount of accuracy in scale to deliver a greater visual usefulness to its user, for example by exaggerating the width of roads. With the end-user similarly in mind, cartographers will censor the content of the space depicted by a map in order to provide a useful tool for that user. For example, a road map may or may not show railroads, and if it does, it may show them less clearly than highways.