Archive for the 'Art & Culture' Category

The Oldest Maps of All

Mankind has been making star charts for thousands of years.  Particularly for ancient societies, stars and other celestial bodies represented their mythological figures–gods, heroes, and wild creatures–each standing for a force of nature with power over their lives.  For decades, historians and astronomers credited the ancient Babylonians with developing the earliest star catalogs.  There is evidence that these catalogs were already incredibly detailed as far back as 5,000 years ago, including predictions of planetary motion, observations of eclipses, and the earliest known named constellations.  But to Dr. Michael Rappenglueck, of the University of Munich, this history didn’t make sense.

There is plenty of unassailable evidence that societies far older than the Mesopotamians were fascinated by the stars.  Archaeological sites around the world, such as Stonehenge, show societies with less advanced mathematical knowledge than the Babylonians successfully developing complex astronomical calendars.  And given the relative ease with which an observer can spot major stars with the naked eye, it is a long-accepted historical fact that celestial bodies played a critical role in ancient religion and mythology.  So where, wondered Rappenglueck, were the maps?  Why hadn’t very ancient societies pre-dating the Babylonians made diagrams of the night sky?

According to Rappenglueck, they did, and archaeologists have been looking at them for decades without realizing it.  Amazingly, Rappenglueck claims to have discovered star charts among cave paintings created as long as 17,000 years ago.

European caves such as Lascaux in France contain a large number of striking and extremely old hand-drawn paintings by prehistoric peoples.  Some of these paintings are adorned with series of dots that, Rappenglueck claims, resemble what major constellations would have looked like tens of thousands of years ago.   Rappenglueck used algorithms of stars’ movements over time to replicate what the night sky would have looked like when the paintings were created.

According to this BBC article, the Lascaux paintings include not just representations of horses, antelopes, and bulls, but also more abstract figures, such as this painting of a bull charging a human figure with a the head of a bird, who is beside yet another bird seemingly on a stick:

According to Dr Rappenglueck, these outlines form a map of the sky with the eyes of the bull, birdman and bird representing the three prominent stars Vega, Deneb and Altair.

Together, these stars are popularly known as the Summer Triangle and are among the brightest objects that can be picked out high overhead during the middle months of the northern summer.

Around 17,000 years ago, this region of sky would never have set below the horizon and would have been especially prominent at the start of spring.

In other words, these abstract paintings are actually ancient constellations dreamed up by prehistoric man.  

Rappenglueck has also found evidence of similar star charts in other caves.  For example, he claims that an image from the “Frieze of Hands” in the Cueva de el Castillo cave in Spain is actually a representation of the Corona Borealis (“Northern Crown”) constellation.  He has produced a paper detailing how he arrived at this conclusion, including explanations of how he reproduced what the night sky would have looked like thousands of years ago. 

The more one thinks about Rappenglueck’s hypothesis, the more it seems to make sense.  Prehistoric peoples drew images from their world on the walls of the caves they lived in, so why couldn’t they have also drawn the stars?  We know very little about what, if anything, these peoples believed in terms of mythology or religion, but if later civilizations could form figures of their gods in the heavens, why not prehistoric man as well?  If these peoples would paint a bull or a horse or an antelope, why wouldn’t they also paint the figures they saw in the sky?

Rappenglueck’s theories are very difficult, if not impossible, to prove conclusively, but other astronomers consider his work reasonable and plausible.  If Rappenglueck is correct, that we can credit the men and women living tens of thousands of years ago with making the first graphical representations of the world around them–maps of the heavens, not of the earth. 

For a primer on stellar cartography, you can see this previous post.  You can also learn more on Dr. Rappenglueck’s field of archaeoastronomy by clicking here.


Why Couldn’t Mozart Find His Teacher?

Although I haven’t written on the trend yet, there have been many recent efforts to map modern social networks, such as those that people create via MySpace or Facebook.  Those networks, created by regular people, are flighty and forever in flux and don’t seem to hold much significance in any particular connection.  The same can’t be said for this fascinating map of the connections between classical composers throughout the centuries.  The map shows how 444 composers, starting with Hildegard in the 11th Century AD, influence each other and build on one anothers work through time.

This visualization was created by the Anonymous Professor, using data derived from the Classical Music Navigator created by Prof. Charles H. Smith at Western Kentucky University.  Here is the Anonymous Prof’s description of the map:

What we see here is a 3D representation of the 444 composers. Each white sphere is a composer and each line represents a connection. For this visualization, a connection represents a point of influence. In other words, every time The Classical Music Navigator indicated that composer A was influenced by composer B, a link was created. The size of the spheres represents the number of direct influences that a composer has had. This resulted in 2,618 direct relationships. The bluer the line the younger the composer (bottom) and the redder the line, the older the composer (top).

The graphic shows that major composers such as Schumann, Stravinsky, and Ravel have influenced a great number of other musicians.  The number of musicians Beethoven affected is staggering, and appears as a large tree-like structure on the map.  Click here or on the picture above to see the full map.

The visulaizer also allows the composers to be grouped by country, demonstrating the influence of compositional powerhouses like France, Germany, and Italy.  Below, I’ve embedded the Anonymous Professor’s brief video tour of the map:

The Anonymous Prof includes some interesting analyses of the data on his site.  For instance, veyr few composers had more than five immediate connections with other composers.  But factor in indirect influences (“composer A may have influenced composer B who in tern influenced composers C, D, and E”), and the numbers start to change.  This analysis shows that some of the major composers had indirect influences on hundreds of future composers.  Moreover, this influence is not a perfect function of age; whereas older composers did, on average, have more influence on future composers, there are many older composers who had virtually no influence on future generations of musicians.

And why couldn’t poor Mozart ever find his teacher? Becuase he was Haydn! 

The Phone and Internet Map of Global New York

Everyone knows New York is a cosmopolitan city, with hundreds of ethnicities from around the world clustered into a few small boroughs and the larger outlying suburbs.  Many maps have been made charting New York’s ethnic neighborhoods, but not until today have I seen any maps that chart the connections between those neighborhoods and the rest of the world.  Thankfully, a team from MIT has taken on the task and developed some informative and beautiful maps to show their research to the rest of us. 

Researchers at MIT’s senseable city laboratory, in collaboration with AT&T, created a set of wonderful maps illustrating New York City’s voice and Internet connections with the rest of the world. They called this project the New York Talk Exchange.  Three of these maps are available online at this website, but they are all available for viewing at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibit Design and the Elastic Mind.  The exhibit runs through May 12, 2008, so hurry and see it before it closes if you can.

The first map, entitled Globe Encounters, tracks Internet protocol (IP) connections between New York and cities around the world.  In this map, the brighter a city’s glow, the more IP connections it has with New York, visually showing the strong New York business and personal connections to both Western Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean.  East Asia and the Middle East, though not shown in the snapshot, also certainly have bright glows over their mahor cities.

The second map, Pulse of the Planet, “illustrates the volume of international calls between New York City and 255 countries over the twenty-four hours in a day.” The map exaggerates the size of countries based on the volume of calls they make and recieve, and highlights the top cities.  This snapshot shows spikes over Toronto, Montreal, London, and Tokyo.

Finally, the map entitled World Within New York breaks the boroughs down into square grids and, for each, shows the percentage of phone calls to different regions of the world.  This snapshot highlights a grid square over Flushing, Queens, showing strong connections to Korea, Portugal, Canada, China and Taiwan, and the Dominican Republic.

More information about these maps is available from the sensable city laboratory website, as well as from this article from MIT.  If anyone attends the MoMA show where these maps are displayed, let me know and I’ll post your reactions!

Maps as Art: Paula Scher

Paula Scher is a New York artist and graphic designer.  In the late 1990s, she had a successful career as a graphic designer, with a portfolio of work as diverse as the album covers for major bands and the Citibank logo.  But in the midst of constant demands from clients, feeling “inundated” by news of the Lewinsky scandal, and exhausted from renovations to her Connecticut home, she sought an escape in her art. 

Scher sequestered herself in her bedroom, tuned the radio to news of the Lewinsky scandal, and began painting the home states of the commentators she heard on the air–Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.  A year and a half later she had finished the entire United States, and turned her art maps into an entire series of paintings.

The details of Ms. Scher’s motivations and intentions in her art are chronicled in this New York Times article, as well as in this introductory essay by Jennifer Liese for her 2007-2008 show in the Maya Stendhal Gallery in New York City.  Her maps are full of details, from the names of cities and towns, roads and railroads, parks and land features, and sometimes even statistics about the region in the painting.  To paraphrase the essay cited above, although Scher’s maps are of instantly recognizable locations like Israel or the United States, they are inaccurate as representations of actual territory.  But her representations of the regions evoke their character in a broader sense:

Consider Middle East, where black paint predominates, reflecting both the dire conflict in the region and the oil underlying it. India—its painted letters pop like a Bollywood poster title—is a flamboyant hive of pink terrain, orange place names, and neon-celadon roads outlined in toothpaste blue and pocked with metallic copper nodes.

Scher has a litany of interesting opinions about maps, what they represent, and their role in the world.  She points out that maps–even supposedly “accurate” maps–are just as inaccurate as hers:

If I want to get really sardonic and cynical about it, I would argue that my maps are about as accurate as the New York Times. The reporter writes down the information, gets part of it wrong, and slants it in a specific way. The truth is a matter of perception.

Scher’s maps are historical statements.  Her map of the Middle East, for instance, includes the obsolete borders of the Babylonian, Ottoman, Roman and other empires in the region.  Her maps are also political statements–those ancient borders are meant to demonstrate “that the people of these lands have been allied and split ad infinitum.” The details on her tsunami map of Southeast Asia even evoke the epicenter of the earthquake.

Click here or on the picture above to launch a slideshow of some of the paintings at Scher’s recent exhibition.

“Violent, Intelligent, Profane, Endearing…”

“…obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun.” That’s how the New York Times summarized its review of the new blockbuster video game Grand Theft Auto IV.  This newest edition in the GTA universe, like its predecessors, goes out of its way to create fully immersive game worlds for the player to experience at their will.   These games are different than the video games of previous generations in that players have the freedom to go anywhere and do anything. 

Many of us have fond memories of playing through classic Mario game maps, which have now been analyzed in detail.  In these classic maps, however, players were limited to following a specific path through the world (in Mario’s case, he could only move in two dimensions).  Still, there are plenty of people around the world who know these maps and how to navigate them in much more detail than they know the map of the actual world.

Note that these maps are immediately understandable to players of all ages.  They are well designed and clearly laid out, tracing explicit paths for the player to follow.  Moreover, they accomplish this without using words, which for Japanese game companies like Nintendo means they can more easily reach a broader market (it also helps avoid embarrassing translations).  The best maps, like subway maps, are designed to be intelligible to as broad an audience as possible with the fewest restrictions possible, so a map that can be understood without using words has the best chance of reading the broadest audience.

Recent years have seen the development of more immersive online gaming experiences, complete with detailed and far-ranging game maps that allow the player freedom of movement.  Games like Ultima Online, EverQuest, and World of Warcraft continue to set many of the standards for the genre.  These games establish a world playable online, hosted on corporate servers, allowing a much broader gameplay experience with intricate and very wide-ranging maps that players can travel across. 

The Grand Theft Auto series, which began in 1997, provides players with immersive gameplay worlds hosted on their own home systems.  Though both large and detailed, GTA’s gameplay worlds are smaller than those of its online counterparts due mainly to memory and processing restrictions.  However, maps continue to play important roles in such games, particularly in the GTA series where players are frequently on the run from the law and a knowledge of game cartography can mean the difference between a sunny afternoon in the park or a gloomy evening in jail.

Online communities have begun collaborating to produce intricate maps of GTA worlds.  The map heading this post is from Grand Theft Auto IV, the most recent addition to the series, and was produced by a team at IGN.  This map works on the same platform as Google Maps, and allows players to overlay the map with the locations of weapons, vehicles, services, and a host of other important gameplay items. 

GTA IV’s map is clearly based on New York City and its boroughs.  Players have the opportunity to travel throughout the city and visit locations as they wish, in addition to the missions they must accomplish to complete the game.  Although some have criticized the GTA series for its violence, there are also some who have issues with the gameplay freedom, though they are admittedly few.

Thanks to Alex for the recommendation!

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