Fake borders and tactical hoaxes: 11 surprising truths behind your maps

The oldest surviving map of Britain has east at the top
The oldest surviving map of Britain has east at the top Credit: getty

We scour them, study them, and – when the sat nav's playing up – swear at them, too. At their most basic, maps are useful tools; but they can also be sublime works of art, weapons of war... or pure, unflinching fictions. 

Consider this a user's guide to maps – and all their foibles. After all, we'd be lost without them. 

Don’t believe your eyes

1. The boundaries between countries aren’t as clear-cut as they seem. In some parts of the world the pattern of international boundaries is actually fiendishly complex. So complex, and sensitive, in fact, that a single representation on a map may not be enough. A user of Google Maps in India would see a different picture of that country’s boundaries than a user elsewhere. Similarly, log on in China and you will see a pattern of boundaries unique to the Chinese view of the world.

2. Before the days of digital surveys, field mapping was laborious, particularly in rough terrain and tropical areas. In 1924, in present-day Ghana, a team of exhausted army surveyors had one hill left to survey – but to avoid more work in the relentless heat, they sketched in a fictitious contour in the shape of an elephant. The feature remained on topographic maps until the Sixties.

3. During the Cold War, the USSR had a sophisticated programme of creating falsified maps of their own territory. Maps were altered to keep locations secret and to confuse potential enemies. The USSR’s falsification included deliberately incorrect coordinates – maps showed real landscapes, but in totally wrong locations – possibly in the hope that enemy missiles would miss their real targets.

A game changer for road trips, no?

Which way is up?

4. It is only since the 19th century that the convention of placing north at the top of maps has become universally accepted. Prior to this, maps were aligned in different ways, often oriented towards those things deemed important to the prevailing culture and beliefs of the time – the residence of an emperor (who must be ‘looked up to’), Mecca, the sunrise, the Pole Star, Paradise.

5. In 1997, Ashley Sims produced a road atlas of Britain which promised to solve a long-standing problem with maps. HisUpside Down Map of Great Britain claimed to allow ‘easier and safer travelling from north to south’. Half of the atlas’s maps are aligned traditionally with north at the top; the other half, including all their text, are turned around so that south is at the top of the page. Frantically turning maps around during a journey, to read place names and turns correctly, was to be a thing of the past.

6. The oldest surviving map with a realistic representation of Britain – an Anglo-Saxon world map, produced in 1025-1050 and known as the Cotton Map – has east at the top.

The use of red was widely used on maps of the British Empire to signify its importance and power Credit: Queen Victoria's Empire; W.S. Cater & Co., 1891. Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Can. Ital. 143

Maps that changed the world

7. Geologists are used to mapping remote regions and to interpreting landscapes from a distance. But staff at the United States Geological Survey in 1961 went a giant leap further by producing a map of the Moon based entirely on telescope photographs. Their Generalized Photogeologic map of lunar rock types and landforms played an important role in planning for the first Moon landing in 1969.

8. At the time of a major outbreak of cholera in Soho, London, in 1854, in which around 500 people died in just five days, the general belief was that diseases were transmitted through bad air and unpleasant smells. Dr John Snow questioned this theory: he suspected the disease was spread by contaminated water. At the risk of his own health, he plotted on a map of Soho where deaths had recently occurred. The incidence of diseases had been mapped since the late 18th century, but by adding a single feature – the location of the water pump on Broad Street, on which the residents depended – the cause of the outbreak was clear. His map became revolutionary. 

9. Throughout the First World War, the British military produced more than 34 million maps. Artillery targeting information had to be accurately plotted, as did the alignment of trenches and troop positions. For the first time, aerial reconnaissance helped with this, providing vital intelligence for tactical maps and those showing the status of operations.

10. During the First World War, the Red Cross used British topographic maps of France to record battlefield deaths, and, as was common on military maps, the maps included grids to help define and describe locations. Handwritten blue pencil marks were added to record the body count for each 500-yard grid square on each map, the grid providing neat units by which to keep a grim tally. The maps provide a dramatic, and shocking, picture of the terrible loss of life. 

11. During the Second World War, the British intelligence service created a new branch – MI9 – to help servicemen evade capture and escape if taken prisoner. Part of their task was to distribute maps for potential escapees. These were printed on silk, so that they could be packed small and hidden within such things as board games and vinyl records – items which could be legitimately taken into prisoner-of-war camps.

Why North Is Up: Map Conventions and Where They Came From, by Mick Ashworth, is out now – published by  runs until March 8 2020 at the Bodleian's Weston Library; free.

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