Back in 2010, while reading – and listening to – the brilliant A History of the World in 100 Objects (yes, that’s where the Irish Times got it from), one of my favourite items was a North American buckskin map from the late eighteenth century. Depicting the region between the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, the map was drawn by Piakshaw Indians to communicate in discussions over land with European settlers. I can vividly remember loading the podcast on to my iPhone last summer and standing gazing at the object in the British Museum while Neil MacGregor – BM director and narrator of the BBC Radio 4 series – explained the conceptual differences between American Indian visions of territory and those of the ever-encroaching Europeans. (A note in case anyone is worried about my sanity: Neil MacGregor’s voice was coming through some pretty standard in-ear headphones rather than a disembodied voice in my head.) So for me it’s not just the colours, the place names, or the buildings and roads that are there no more that draw me in. It’s the power relations that maps embody, who drew them, why, and what they tell us about how different peoples in different time periods visualise the world. I mean, what’s an ‘accurate’ map anyway?
But, of course, it is also about the colours, the place names, and the buildings and roads that we’ve forgotten. So you can imagine how long I’ve spent on the myriad new historical mapping sites that have popped up in Ireland in the last while. The OSI site is a particular favourite – just click ‘historic layers’ and have some fun toggling between the different time periods. But then I discovered the recently released Down Survey, digitised by TCD, and decided to go searching for all those little places that have meant something down through the ages (if you really must know, Louth has a nice little spot for itself on the map). And it turns out there are dozens of these kinds of sites out there – if you know where to look. Chatting about this topic earlier, a colleague here at NUIG pointed me in the direction of Maps and Pictures, which sells reproduction antique maps but also lets you have a sneaky look at some high quality images before you do.
– Kevin O’Sullivan
Image by Mike Peel, http://www.mikepeel.net.