Harley-“Texts and Contexts in the Interpretations of Early Maps”

Harley-“Texts and Contexts in the Interpretations of Early Maps”

B.J. Harley states that maps are very underused and misunderstood within history. They are often limited to very small and specific uses and questions. For example, he states that historians do not use them to explain social history because historians commonly believe that the two do no go together. In this work, he explains why the map in misunderstood within history and how it can be used beyond it commonly thought of uses.

Map are usually seen a factual representation of a landscape. They can tell historians where things are located and where boundaries were in different time periods. If a map is not able to do that then it is seen as essentially useless in history. However, Harley argues that a map’s use goes beyond that of a representation of a landscape. He also believes that maps can viewed as a social construction of history . By this he means maps describe the world in the “cultural practices, preferences, and priorities” in the time period that it was created (35). From maps historians can find meaning and symbols beyond that of a simple map, but meanings of the time period it is from. He believes that maps should be viewed as paintings are rather than simple representations of land.

Maps contain symbols that can be interpreted like text in a book. Similarities in symbols can been seen maps across the board, however, there are also differences that occur with maps that are representative of the time and place that they were written. There have been different rules that cartographers have followed when creating maps that have allowed historians to interpret maps as if they written in normal text. Harley also believes that maps contain rhetorical images; stating that maps-although viewed as factual-are not free of personal and cultural interpretations. To fully understand these interpretations, historians must look at maps not only through the lens of the time in which they were created, but the “context of the cartographer” as well (37). However, the cartographer context is difficult to accomplish because there is not much written about it. It is also difficult to interpret the intention of the map maker because of maps often represent more than one viewpoint.

Harley also discusses the comparison between two map. Two maps of the same area could have completely different interpretations because of the differing beliefs between cartographers. When there are different maps it is important to find out what each map is saying and why was it created. What was the goal of the person who created the map? How was it different from other map makers? Why? These are the questions that historians must consider when analyzing maps. Historians study everything on maps from the outlines of states and country’s to place-names to help profile what maps look the way they do.

Within a societal context, they look at intellectual processes that can be represented within the map. Cartographers are affected by the culture of their society as every other person is. This cultural influence can be seem within the maps giving it a social context that historians do not often think about.  To do this properly, Harley believes there are two things historians must do. The first is figure out the “rules of social order”, this is both the rules of the cartographer and the society of influence for the map (45). These rules are not always completely obvious and have to be finessed from the map by finding what it does not include rather than fine was it does. Second they must look at the iconography of a map. This strategies looks at the artistic interpretation rather than trying to dissect it as a written language. They try to figure out the meaning of the map in relation to the society who first created and used it.

In another section, Harley looks at maps through a lens of political power. He believes that this can be an essential part of the study of maps. Evidence of political power influence can be seen on many maps. He gives maps during the colonial period as a good example of where political power effects the creation of the map. Maps, in this case, are viewed from the iconological perspective that he discussed earlier. He looks at the map from three different perspectives: the map’s language, symbolism within the map that expresses its meaning, and sociology. Harley notes that maps could be used as forms of promotion in war. Cartographers were mark territories as belonging to certain powers, but they not have actually owned them at that time. Instead the map created a sense of ownership that pushed people to take over the land they had already begun to think of as theirs. Maps and their history become very big in more modern times. Political influences made map making much more important. Powers were scrambling for territory and they wanted to note boundaries so that their would be record of their land ownership. This also went to smaller scale property ownership. Maps would be used to define land boundaries so that people would have a record of their land in case people ever tried to challenge them for it. It was also useful to landlords who wished to tax the people who lived on their land, they would know exactly who was within their control to tax.

Harley argues that the biases within maps are not often discussed. While admit there are biases in certain maps, like those used for propaganda, they do not acknowledge the biases or distortions in everyday maps. As discussed earlier, maps could be distorted, especially during times of war, to promote power’s agendas and to demonstrate their power. The unconscious distortions that Harley notes are ones were societal values may be caused the cartographer to alter the map. Some of the distortions that can be seen on maps were when cartographers were alter the size of certain countries to make them seem bigger and more powerful than they may have actually been. This can also be seen on a smaller scale within towns. Class divisions cause the misrepresentation of size within towns as cartographers make the higher classes seem to occupy more space than those of a lower class. Some things would also be left out. The things are are left out of maps can be just as important as those that are included.

The symbolism of power of maps can be seen in several different ways. Maps within paintings can be seen as a sign of power. Harley notes a painting of duke with a globe as a territorial symbol. Maps are but one symbol of power that be viewed in art throughout history. Decoration can also be seen on maps: in the borders of maps or on the map itself. Ideological history can be seen on maps representing trading places or certain groups of people.

Maps are largely viewed as real representations of physical geography. If a map happens to have decoration then historians may try to analyze the symbolism of those maps, however, that is usually not a focus. This is especially true when one looks at a map that does not have obvious decoration. However, there is much more to maps than meets the eye. Maps can be used to analyze societies and the political powers that ruled them. They can be interpreted like painting and could have a much bigger role within history if historians analyzed them not only for their geographical representations, but their social meanings as well.

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