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Cartography Roundup: Warrugs, Cartograms, Oddball Maps

December 1, 2009

Everyone knows that the best-ever cartographic representation of a land mass was done by the Irish School of Motoring, whose “Bear driving a car” is the nation’s greatest achievement since Mollycule Theory came out of Flann O’Brien’s pickled brain-pan.

Hosanna in the Hiace

But since I had a shitty day, I figured I should share with you what I do when I have a shitty day. Sometimes it’s looking at pictures of kittens (even though I’m allergic). Sometimes it’s mythical beasts. But today, like many days, it was maps. Delicious, sexy, ridiculous maps. And rugs.

This blog of Strange Maps will probably ruin your day. And I’m kinda nervous about you even clicking that link, for fear you will never, ever come back to my blog again. Nor will I. But, to save you some time after you check out the most recent post, on ‘accidental cartography’, try this post about an ‘undiscovered island’ called Buss which, after being included on a sixteenth-century map, was sought out (and only rarely spotted, and only by people who weren’t looking for it) frequently, and even included on some charts of the North Atlantic until the 19th century.

It’s interesting to note that while the area in the North Atlantic between Iceland and the Canadian coast would have been fairly well-travelled, so many mythical islands were marked in that area for so long. Perhaps it’s because the route was well-travelled. Maybe the curvature of the horizon played tricks on the eye. Hy Brasil is my favourite. Shown on many maps of Ireland and the north Atlantic (in fact, more common on world maps because they showed more outlying islands than maps of Ireland on its own), sightings of it were reported for centuries, the latest known report (or the latest to admit it publicly) was in 1872, by respected Irish antiquarian TJ Westropp, who is about fifty blog posts worth of interesting in his own right.

Early maps often show islands that didn’t exist because early maps were compiled using a mixture of actual survey and hearsay. So to compilers of, say, this 1597 map showing the North Atlantic, Hy Brasil and St Brendan’s Isle are no more and no less real than, say, the Outer Hebrides. Of course, the mapmakers themselves would not find reports of magical or mystical places all that outlandish, nor would their patrons. Elizabeth I’s cosmologist John Dee was also into crystal balls, and Sir Walter Raleigh’s last voyage abroad was to Guiana, where he promised James I that he could definitely find El Dorado. The unknown was the unknown, and it’s not hard to get a guy who believes in a solid gold city to believe in a magical island.

Magini's 1597 Map. If you look at the bottom left, you'll see Hy Brasil and St Brendan's Island off the southwest coast of Ireland
Not even all modern mapmaking involves resurveying territory anew (although that’s what makes the Google Streetview Car so ridiculously awesome). The Ordnance Survey maps that you buy in the shop were compiled using the data off a variety of editions of OS maps, which means that in the case of archaeological information, not all of the maps are made from data derived from new fieldwork.

Oh, and speaking of maps involving Ireland, and to add a really ridiculous detail to this accidental cartography game, there’s a little bit of footpath crack on the road leading from the village to our house that looks exactly the way Baptista Boazio drew Lough Neagh in his 1599 map.

Boazio's Ireland, 1599. Source:

There, I just told you a secret. I’ve never told anybody that before. And now you know that when I’m looking at the ground, I’m looking for money or shapes that look like geographical entities. Mostly money, though.

So back to my trawl of this awesome other-person’s blog. The actual travel distances on this map of ‘space-time convergence’ might no longer be relevant, but the idea behind it is. I can get to Boston in the same amount of time it takes to get to West Cork. Possibly even faster. It takes longer to get the 19A bus from Finglas to the city centre during rush hour than it does to fly to Glasgow and get a bus to the city centre. And it’s even funnier if you try smaller cities. Have you ever tried to take the train from Cork to Sligo? You might as well fly to Chicago, and besides, it’s probably cheaper.

And here’s a map of Ireland, laid out as if there were only 100 people. Once you’ve seen that, boil your brains on this ‘pene’-enclave’ between Cavan and Monaghan that the blog owner found on Google maps. The political geography of Ireland at the level of the townland is a bonanza of fractals.

There are maps for fun, like this West Virginia Hot Dog Mapping Project, and more accidental maps, which would have been the coolest thing I’d ever seen if I hadn’t spotted this post on Afghan War Rugs, which then made me google around and found this site dedicated to carpets and mats that depict Afghanistan’s legacy of war.

They’re jarring visually, and yet not so jarring if you think about it. A culture’s art reflects the material and psychological worlds its people inhabit, and for Afghanistan, it would be strange if the legacy of the last three decades of war did not appear in material objects. Some of the rugs are figurative displays of people and weapons, but others show military equipment in a more stylised fashion. In the YouTube video on that War Rugs site, someone asks if the rugs are ‘pro’ or ‘anti’ war, which is kind of a stupid question isn’t it? When it’s going on all around you, perhaps you do just want the war to stop, but for now, the war just is. I wonder if being pro- or anti-war in the abstract sense is a luxury we really only have in countries where we’re relatively safe.

According to this NPR report that you should listen to, some of the flags have provoked controversy when they went on display in New York. I can certainly understand why an image of planes flying into the Twin Towers would upset people, but considering many of the rugs also show images of American tanks and movements within Afghanistan, Afghani national heroes, and so many other military scenes, it’s perhaps better to see them as artisanal reportage than Carpet Op-Eds. They seem to tell stories without necessarily making a statement of approval or disapproval. Or possibly. Whatever they say, it’s a pretty fascinating way to say it.

Apart from those sites, and this article from Forbes, this is about all I could find about the war rugs, so if you know anything about them, I’d love to learn more.

And when you’re done with that, you might want to play a little. So have a go at messing around with these cartograms. As much as a lot of us love looking at naked stats, the graphical representation of data is so much more sexy. It’s just that little bit of clothing that makes it such a tease. Click on one of the world maps, and have a go. There’s just about any type of global data you could want, and although some of it is a few years old, for a map dork, this kind of thing is still basically like opening all of the presents under the Christmas tree. You can click on the map and find data for individual countries, too.

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