Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Mapping the Unknown

There are many ways that cartographers can cover up or hide their lack of geographical knowledge. Traditionally cartographers have just hidden their ignorance by making shit up. Lots of pre-modern maps include references to imaginary locations. For example Hanns RĂ¼st's Mappa Mundi (c1480) includes a mountain labelled, "Caspian Mountains gog and magog", which purports to show the location of the descendants of Noah's son Japheth. Gerard Mercator's map of the Arctic Septentrionalium Terrarum shows a huge magnetic black rock at the North Pole. Matthew Paris' medieval Map of Britain includes a label showing 'the city of Merlin'.

To be fair even the earliest cartographers didn't really just make things up. They did what modern cartographers do and mapped the world based on their contemporary understanding of the world. In Europe the geographical knowledge of medieval cartographers was often based on the Bible, prevailing myths and classical scholars such as Ptolomy, Herodotus and Pliny the Elder. It is perhaps not surprising then that their maps of the world sometimes included a few inaccuracies.

The tradition of drawing mythical creatures on maps or using warning labels such as 'Here be dragons' or 'Here be lions' may in part have been an attempt to show the potential dangers of territories which were unknown or unexplored. To be even more clear that an area has yet to be mapped cartographers have also often used explicit labels such as 'terra incognita' (unknown land) and 'mare incognitum' (unknown sea).

This week, thanks to the Public Domain Review, I discovered another way of mapping the unknown. In Clouds of Unknowing: Edward Quin’s Historical Atlas (1830) the Public Domain Review explores the use of clouds by Edward Quin in his Historical Atlas. In Quin's maps rolling clouds are used to hide parts of the world which were yet to be mapped at different periods of European history. 

You can explore Quin's maps in detail on the David Rumsey Map Collection website. Anyone who has ever played a video game has probably seen examples of a 'fog of war' being used on a game map to hide areas of a game world which have yet to explored. Edward Quin uses clouds in a very similar way. His 'clouds of history' map the extent of the known world during different historical periods by hiding the rest of the world behind broiling black clouds. 

Quin was an English historian of the early 19th Century and his history of the world is therefore written from the point of view of a European Christian. His earliest map is from 3999 BC and shows the Garden of Eden (which he located somewhere south of Mount Ararat). Outside of the Garden of Eden, the rest of the world is hidden by cloud. 

As you read on and progress through Quin's history of the world his maps show larger and larger areas of the Middle East and then Europe (as the descendants of Adam & Eve begin to spread out into the rest of the world after the Fall of Man). For example the map above shows the known world during the 'Roman Empire In the Augustan Age' (around 1 AD).

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