Depicting the Landscape
Long before the age of relatively standardized computer-generated maps, mapmakers through history devised innumerable ways to represent the three-dimensional physical world in the two-dimensional, simplified space of a paper map.
Beautiful and historically significant maps and charts are regularly featured in museums, articles, and exhibits of all kinds - such as these from the David Rumsey Map Center at Stanford.
Beyond being merely informational, many are great, enduring works of art and design.
There is beauty and art too, though, in what would have been considered mundane, technical, and primarily practical maps at the time of their production, such as the many nautical charts, military topographic maps, and government reference maps featured in this exhibit.
My aim is to celebrate that easily overlooked beauty, and the historical and geographical interest represented in the relatively mundane parts of the digitized map collections at Stanford.
This is also a brief history of some of the ways that landscapes have been depicted on maps, and through these maps one can follow diverging and converging threads of design philosophy and artistic and technical thought. The effects of colonialism and war on how ideas are spread are also apparent.
A thread also emerges of the experimentation and methodical working out over time of what ultimately becomes the modern map standards of the late 20th and the 21st centuries, by countless mapmakers the world over.
There are six sections in this feature spread across two parts:
Part one (this page):
- Section One: Early Topography
- Section Two: Nautical Charts
- Section Three: Describing the Landscape
Part two (accessible here):
- Section Four: Modern Topographic Contours
- Section Five: Alternatives to Topographic Contours
- Section Six: Elevation Tinting
Bonus section: Legends
Here are a few basic concepts that will be useful to know, most of which will be shown in more detail later on.
Topography: the shape of the earth's surface
Hachures: a form of shading using lines drawn to roughly show the shape of the topography. By drawing them close together or further apart, an appearance of three-dimensional shading gives you an idea of what the landscape looks like.
Elevation: the height of the ground relative to mean (average) sea level, usually provided in feet or meters.
Topographic Contours/Contour Lines: imaginary lines that join points of equal elevation on a map.
Topographic contour lines show you the shape of the three-dimensional topography in two dimensions. When the contour lines are close together, they indicate a steep slope, such as the right side of the hill depicted on the right. The contour lines are sometimes labeled with the elevation they represent, as this example also illustrates.
Other types of contours: it is useful to know that contour lines can be used to show things besides topography. For one example, in this exhibit we will see isobaths, which are contour lines showing underwater depths (bathymetry, or underwater topography). Contours can also be used to show very different sorts of information, such as rainfall and air pollution data, among many other things.
Clicking on any image will take you to a full-size, zoomable version of that map.
I suggest right-clicking and opening in a new tab or window.
Section One: Early Topography
Communicating a general sense of a landscape
Today, we are used to highly accurate topographic maps created with aerial photography and satellite data, usually utilizing topographic contour lines.
Many early maps depict the landscape in only the very broadest sense, with little or no scientific accuracy intended. Yet these maps are still able to convey a reasonably accurate sense of the landscape that would have been useful to the map's original users.
Non-scientifically-accurate representations of topography continued, and continue, to be produced long after modern survey techniques were invented. Whether because accurate surveying wasn't available or simply for artistic effect, what these maps are able to convey is substantially different from accurate maps and remains valuable in communicating a sense of the landscape.
A favorite type of non-accurate map are cartoon and "bird's eye" maps, such as this charming 1946 map of Taiwan:
Or consider this artistic rendering of the world in a map of global shipping routes, which evokes rugged landscapes and also features stylized ocean currents:
This has been only a very brief look into early and non-scientific depictions of topography to set some context for the rest of this feature. I encourage you to explore Stanford's early map collections further - try this SearchWorks search as a starting point, showing maps from 1900 and earlier.
Maps featured in the above section:
Section Two: Nautical Charts
In these nautical navigation charts, mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the primary purpose of depicting above-water landscapes and topography is to aid in navigation from the water. Prominent landforms and other landmarks that would be visible from a ship are typically the focus, and may be exaggerated. Inland areas are often not depicted at all, suggesting that the landforms were surveyed entirely from the water.
One particularly interesting type of charted navigational aid are conspicuous trees, as seen on the right.
In the San Francisco Bay, an underwater rock pinnacle known as Blossom Rock (named by Captain F. Beechey after his ship the HMS Blossom, being the one who surveyed the rock) was a major navigation hazard in the 19th century, being at a depth of five feet below the surface at low tide.
Beechey devised a way to navigate around Blossom Rock by sighting two conspicuously large old-growth redwood trees on the East Bay hills (below). The trees were later logged, making avoiding the hazard difficult again for a couple of decades until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began removing the rock. Wikipedia has a good overview with more details.
Nautical chart mapping agencies have some of the most interesting agency logos:
A significant number of the early 20th century maps in Stanford’s collections, particularly the military maps, originate from the Hoover War Library at Stanford, now the Hoover Institute. The library was founded by Herbert Hoover, who would later become the 31st President of the United States, after the First World War, "to provide the scholarly basis for understanding the international conflicts of the modern world" (see reference 6).
These maps were collected from a wide variety of sources and many were maps used in the field, including nautical charts used onboard US Navy ships in the early 20th century through both world wars, and charts and maps captured from the Germans and the Japanese in World War 2. Some maps and charts contain notations and updates observed by sailors.
(Incidentally, we'll look at a topographic map drawn by Hoover while a geology student at Stanford in part 2, section 4 ).
The accuracy of nautical charts of every era is quite high, especially considering the technology available and the circumstances of their creation. Water depths, and underwater hazards, if known, are usually included and are likely more accurate than the landforms depicted, having been surveyed directly from a ship using a sounding line or lead line.
However, information was often passed from one expedition's survey chart to the next without the ability to check it thoroughly - exemplified below by the appearance on a 1925 chart of what appear to be depth soundings taken by the H.M.S. Beagle, the survey ship that facilitated Charles Darwin's famous journey in the 1830s (and which was decommissioned and dismantled long before the 1881 date shown - it is unclear what that refers to):
Note also the parentheses under the label for the Conflict Group islands in the chart above, indicating that the islands were reported to be 2 3/4 miles away from the original charted position.
In the example below, a hazard reported by a ship in 1879 was reported not seen by a ship in 1882.
Errors can persist for a remarkably long time in other cases, however. In the same image below, the "Sandy Island" reported by the whaling ship Velocity in 1876 persisted on official charts through the late 20th century - and on Google Maps and other secondary map sources until 2012, when an Australian research ship looked for the island and found that it doesn't actually exist (with no evidence underwater suggesting it could have existed in 1876) (see reference 4 for more details and images of the modern charts that included the non-existent island).
Nautical charts are a good example of maps designed for a very particular purpose, where scientific accuracy is important - navigation errors and hazards incur a significant risk of shipwreck and potential death, even today.
Even with their specific, technical purpose, nautical charts are frequently also among the most evocative of maps, such as the paradisiacal depiction of a tropical island in the first example below:
As seen in some of the charts above, contour lines have been used to depict water depths - submarine contours, known as isobaths - since as early as the 16th century by Dutch mapmakers, coming into common use by the Dutch by the late 18th century and widespread on nautical charts by the 19th century. The extension of the concept to depicting above-water physical features (topographic contours) came later, originating in the late 18th century but not entering common use until the mid 19th century (see reference 1).
The Russian chart below features both isobaths and topographic contours - and the surveying of the land is incomplete. We'll look more closely at topographic contours in part 2 of this feature.
Because above-ground landscapes receive less attention in these old nautical charts, the topography is sometimes pieced together over time, and multiple styles of topography may exist on the same chart as a result. This remarkable example contains three distinct styles of topography!
Volcanoes are prominent landmarks in the Pacific:
Some nautical charts contain illustrations of what the landform looks like from the water to aid in visual navigation:
The next two charts are remarkable and unusual - they're part of a series that depict a water-level side-view in every direction, providing a unique and slightly bizarre perspective, but which would allow one to navigate visually with ease (the rest of the series are in the "maps used in this section" widget at the end of this section):
Nautical charts even today are living documents, and mariners are encouraged to submit improvements and new observations.
This chart features penciled-in additions made in the field that would have been sent back to the Navy hydrographer's office:
During World War 2, the best available maps and charts for many regions were often decades old - notices like this are common:
This chart, reproduced for use in the field in 1942, was surveyed in the 19th century:
This chart of Kyushu, Japan, was reproduced by the U.S. Navy in 1944 from a Japanese chart surveyed in 1923:
The above chart is also an example of a classified military map, which I haven't explored in this feature but which is a fascinating aspect of the Stanford military map collections.
The post-war period saw a new effort in modernizing existing maps and charts, incorporating new observations and surveying completed during the war and afterwards using the latest technologies. For example, these early 1950s US Army Map Service maps combine updated modern topography from an aerial survey with hydrographic information from a 1930s Japanese chart.
Maps featured in the above section:
Section Three - Describing the Landscape
One of my favorite kinds of map are pictorial history maps, with illustrations and blocks of text describing the history of the area shown on the map, such as this map in David Rumsey's collection. (An original copy of that map hung in my grandmother's cottage in the Ridgeway area indicated on the map - as a child I must have read through the entire map dozens of times.)
Pictorial maps are a subject worthy of their own exhibit and won't be featured here. Subsequently, though, one of my favorite things to come across in "regular" maps are annotations and descriptions, where the mapmaker decided that symbols and visual indicators weren't enough. We've already seen some examples, as these are frequent in old nautical charts - such as the description of flying fish in one of the examples above.
Earlier examples of descriptions on maps from further back in history include the sea monsters shown on some early maps, and indicators of unexplored regions such as the classic "Parts Unknown":
However, we'll mostly be looking at relatively newer examples here. And these are not all just annotations - some are other interesting ways of "describing" an area, like drawing in extra detail or simply taking extra care to evoke a place.
The richly annotated map in the two images below of what is now a border region between Sudan (now South Sudan) and Ethiopia, with a small piece of Kenya at the bottom, was compiled in 1941 by the British survey office in what was Anglo-Egyptian Sudan from surveys by the British in 1901 and 1909 - those surveys almost certainly being the source of the unusually extensive descriptive annotations - and 1938. It was then adapted for use by the U.S. Army Map Service in 1951. Finally, following Kenyan independence from Great Britain in 1963, the newly independent Survey of Kenya reprinted the map with small revisions in 1966.
This is one of my favorite maps depicting a geological landscape:
The densely illustrated map uses distinct styles of illustration for various physical features:
And uses annotations to relate more details about the landscape where illustrations won't suffice:
The 1923 Japanese military map below, collected by the U.S. Army Map Service, is part of a series depicting Xinmin County, China. It doesn’t appear to have text annotations beyond place names, but what attracted my attention is how the landscape surrounding the river or stream on the left is depicted. I then noticed the depiction of perhaps a defensive wall around a town, and what may be a railroad line.
Looking at the map more broadly, despite its relatively simple design aesthetic, I found this to be a charmingly expressive representation of an area with tree-lined streams and roads, marshy areas, and a real sense of the interconnected rural relationship between the villages and towns within the landscape.
You can locate this region on Google Maps/Earth by searching for Juliuhecun (巨流河村), the town at the bottom right of the image here. I couldn’t find any evidence of a walled city, but in the satellite imagery you’ll see a striking agricultural landscape and confirm that it is indeed a railroad depicted in the map. (Note that satellite imagery in China is incorrectly aligned with the street map because of complicated restrictions on geographic data in China.)
Labels for buildings in city-plan scale military maps are common, such as on the map below (and sometimes with much greater detail as in some of the following examples), but what I particularly also enjoyed here is the series of bridges crossing the stream along the right side, and the palm trees in the city area. Today, the city has greatly expanded and the lagoon and meandering (winding, curvy) stream are completely gone, with a drainage canal in their place.
Many military topographic maps contain generic black squares to indicate buildings and towns. Their purpose is primarily just to indicate that there is a built human presence in an area - exact placement is of little importance as the built environment can change relatively quickly, and the scale of the map may be too large for much detail to be visible anyway.
In the example below, I encountered something unexpected - buildings apparently in the water.
Checking Google Maps/Earth (search for "Laum Tabawan") reveals a remarkable floating and stilted town, somewhat common in this part of the Philippines, that today has expanded well beyond the extent suggested in this WW2 map.
This map is part of a series of planning maps for the World War 2 American invasion of Japan. Japan surrendered after the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the planned invasion did not take place. The planning maps are extensively annotated for their particular, unique purpose of describing ease of movement across the terrain for the soldiers, in addition to marking the locations of defenses and the ideal landing areas:
This series of 1946 U.S. Army Map Service maps of Tokyo is remarkable in its detail and scope, and the extent of its building and location labels. I highly recommend looking at this one in full before continuing to the caption below the map:
The areas with diagonal lines are the areas destroyed by American bombing:
Looking at the full maps, the extent of the indiscriminate destruction is striking, and hints perhaps at the inspiration for Godzilla (in addition to the atomic bombings), showing paths of destruction through the city.
Similarly, the extent of atomic bomb damage in Hiroshima is depicted on this 1947 U.S. Army Map Service map:
This series of 1945 U.S. Army Map Service maps of North Korea (including this separate one of the capital, Pyongyang) provide some interesting insights into the country, especially if compared against current satellite imagery:
Descriptions and annotations on maps are, generally speaking, fairly rare, depending on the type of map. This is unfortunately especially true today in the age of digital mapping, where the information that would previously have been displayed on the map has been moved to digital metadata. Though they have many other advantages for practical use, poetic descriptions and historical notes are typically not included or displayed on computer maps.
An interesting example is Google Maps/Earth, which does contain a treasure trove of information and photographs for the entire world. Yet it severely lacks in providing any context for what one is looking at like many of the maps I've featured here provide.
Sometimes, a lack of explanation on a map or in Google Maps/Earth can prompt falling down a rabbit hole of internet research trying to figure out what one is looking at. Often, though, when researching things I've spotted on old maps or on Google Maps, I reach a dead end and there is no satisfying information available. One such example is the "Burial place of the sacred cats" featured earlier, which I have found mention of elsewhere, but solid information is decidedly scarce. (One wonders if there's another old map out there somewhere with an annotation that provides the vital clue to finding more information!)
Another example is this map featuring an unusual country border:
This suddenly-straight border between Zambia and the Democratic Republic of Congo was determined arbitrarily by colonial powers. Check out the full map, and look on Google Maps/Earth - it's quite dramatic. Read more about it by looking up the "Congo Pedicle" - Wikipedia has a good overview.
Maps featured in the above section:
Continue to part two - click the link below
Digitization Lab Assistant, Digital Production Group, Stanford University Libraries.
For me, maps create a spark of adventure and possibility in the imagination like few other things do. At around 11 or 12 years old, I participated in a topographical survey of the island the summer camp I attended is situated on, and enjoyed map and compass orienteering before the days of handheld GPS. Later, I studied geology as an undergrad and then a graduate student, where I became immersed in the world of scientific maps.
All along, though, my interests skewed towards human history as much as, or more than, the billions of years of Earth's geologic history. Having the opportunity for the past several years to work on digitizing thousands of old maps, such as most of those I featured here, has been a real pleasure. I only wish that I had put more thought into organizing the lists of interesting maps that I've come across.
Special thanks to Olivia Diaz - age 12 and an ever-curious rockhound - for valuable assistance organizing this project, and for reviewing and providing useful suggestions for improving the accessibility of this exhibit for all ages.
Thanks also to Andria Olson, for inviting me to join this Spotlight exhibit and for the useful suggestions and corrections.
References and further reading
Reference 1: Rann, K., and R. S. Johnson. “Chasing the Line: Hutton’s Contribution to the Invention of Contours.” Journal of Maps, vol. 15, no. 3, 2019, pp. 48–56., doi:10.1080/17445647.2019.1582439. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17445647.2019.1582439.
Reference 2: Rann, K. “The Appearance of Contour Lines.” The Great Lines, 9 Aug. 2020, https://thegreatlinesproject.wordpress.com/2020/08/09/the-appearance-of-contour-lines/.
Karen Rann, author of the above two references, is an artist currently pursuing a PhD studying the invention of contour line topographic mapping. Their blog, The Great Lines Project, is a wonderful, fascinating, rigorously researched and referenced source of information on the history of topographic maps and related topics.
Reference 3: Ordnance Survey Maps, One-Inch Revised New Series, England and Wales, 1892-1908, National Library of Scotland, https://maps.nls.uk/os/one-inch-rev-new-series/.
Reference 4: South Pacific Sandy Island 'Proven Not to Exist', 22 Nov. 2012, https://blog.geogarage.com/2012/11/south-pacific-sandy-island-proven-not.html.
Reference 5: Imhof, Eduard, and Harry Steward. Cartographic Relief Presentation. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1982. Print. https://searchworks.stanford.edu/view/3954975.
Reference 6: “Library & Archives History.” Hoover Institution, https://www.hoover.org/library-archives/about/history.
An inspiration for this exhibit more than a reference, I highly recommend this article on geological illustrations:
Reference 7: Merriam, D. F. “A Lost Art: Geological Illustrations.” GSA Today, vol. 19, no. 11, pp. 30–34., doi:10.1130/GSATG62A.1. Accessed 13 Aug. 2020. PDF available at https://www.geosociety.org/gsatoday/archive/19/11/.
Reference 8: “Images Taken by the (SRTM) Mission.” NASA, https://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/(SRTM).
Reference 9: da Vinci, Leonardo. “The Rivers and Mountains of Central Italy C.1502-4.” Royal Collection Trust, RCIN 912277, www.rct.uk/collection/search#/1/collection/912277/the-rivers-and-mountains-of-central-italy.
The following is a nice overview history of topographic mapping at USGS, written by USGS geographers:
Reference 10: Usery, E. Lynn, et al. “125 Years of Topographic Mapping: USGS History, Part 1: 1884–1980.” ArcNews Online, Fall 2009 Issue, www.esri.com/news/arcnews/fall09articles/125-years.html.
Reference 10: Usery, E. Lynn, et al. “125 Years of Topographic Mapping: USGS History, Part 2: From the Dawn of Digital to The National Map Part 2.” ArcNews Online, Winter 2009/2010 Issue, https://www.esri.com/news/arcnews/winter0910articles/125-years.html.
Reference 11: Thompson, M. “Development of Photogrammetry in the U.S. Geological Survey.” Geological Survey Circular 218, 1958. PDF available: https://pubs.usgs.gov/circ/0218_1958/report.pdf
This is not publicly accessible without Stanford or other academic credentials, but is thorough and interesting:
Reference 12: Reference 12: Collier, Peter. The Impact on Topographic Mapping of Developments in Land and Air Survey: 1900-1939, Cartography and Geographic Information Science, 29:3, 155-174, 2002. DOI: 10.1559/152304002782008440 https://doi.org/10.1559/152304002782008440
This is publicly accessible and summarizes some of the key points from reference 12, as well as providing some other interesting history:
Reference 13: Burtch, Robert. “History of Photogrammetry”, 2008. https://ibis.geog.ubc.ca/courses/geob373/lectures/Handouts/HistoryofPhotogrammetry.pdf
Public domain resources from USGS and NASA used in this exhibit link directly to their sources from the images.