Maps and views blog

Cartographic perspectives from our Map Librarians


Our earliest map appears on a coin made in the Roman Empire and our latest appears as pixels on a computer screen. In between we have the most complete set of Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain, the grand collection of an 18th-century king, secret maps made by the Soviet army as well as the British government, and a book that stands taller than the average person. Read more

08 August 2019

Back to front

With maps, as with life, defining something as wrong or right depends entirely on your standpoint. One person’s west is another person’s east, one person’s left is another's right. And vice versa. I think.

You'd think maps would be unequivocal about this sort of thing, but you'd be wrong- in fact there's a whole world of back to front, inside out and the wrong way round in maps. Here are just a few examples.

First, celestial maps, that most confusing of genres. Anyone who has looked closely at a historical celestial globe or chart will notice that in the majority of them the constellations do not match up with how they appear in the night sky. They are reversed. For example, the sword and scabbard of Orion hang to the right of his belt in Thomas Hood’s 1590 celestial chart, but in fact the Orion Nebula is on the left of the constellation as you look at it in the night sky.

deep sky image of the constellation Orion by Mouser, 2004

Deep sky image of Orion                                                            

Detail of the Orion constellation from Thomas Hood's star chart of 1590.


Constellation of Orion, from Thomas Hood's 1590 celestial chart

There’s a remarkably good explanation. For much of history the ‘celestial sphere’ was thought to be just that – a vast globe encasing our own globe, with all of the stars and celestial phenomena studded onto it. Since we, the globe viewer, are standing outside of the globe, of course the constellations are reversed. The cases of tiny 17th and 18th century pocket globes, with their interiors papered with celestial hemispheres, visualise it very well.   

AGLOBE - Celestial and terrestrial globe maps-c21-d14_2
J.B.Homann's miniature globe of 1700

J.B.Homann, Globus Coelestis / terrestris..., c.1700. 

It all makes perfect sense really, though such maps are pretty useless if you want to use one to locate a star in the night sky.

So much for the quirks of celestial cartography. What about a bit of good old incompetence and blunder? Why not spare a thought for the producer of the first printed map to be included in a Bible, the Zürich Old Testament by Christopher Froschauer of 1525. The map was copied from the famous c. 1515 map of the Holy Land by the German artist Lucas Cranach. But the copyist didn’t think to first create a reversed image of his model before cutting its outlines into a woodblock to print his map from. His finished map shows the Mediterranean Sea positioned weirdly to the east of Israel, not the west.

Lucas Cranach's map of the Holy Land of around 1515

Lucas Cranach the Elder's map of c. 1515 ...

Asholy land map
Martin Froschauer's map of the Holy Land from 1525

.. and the unfortunate copy, published in 1525 (Trinity College Library, Cambridge, A.10.18).

Back-to-front issues are everywhere, even in the world famous Hereford Mappamundi of around 1275, where the illuminator apparently got in a muddle and reversed the labels for Europe and Asia.

The Hereford Mappamundi of around 1275.

The Hereford World map, c. 1275  (Hereford Cathedral)

A detail of the Hereford Mappamundi of 1275 showing the letters of Africa over part of southern Europe

...and a detail of the Alps and north Adriatic Sea with the 'R' and 'I' of 'AFRICA' in large gold letters

The sympathetic historian Evelyn Edson described the obvious mortification he must have felt when he realised, ‘and in gold leaf too!’ However, another historian, Marica Milanesi, believed the reverse labelling was entirely intentional in order to follow the late medieval concept of the map as a ‘mirror of reality.’

Milanesi’s argument is persuasive, but there’s no accounting for incompetence.

21 April 2019

Two recent flight-related additions to the Map Collection

Today’s commercial pilots are well equipped to detect and fly over or around meteorological obstacles such as thunderstorms that lie in their path, so that as passengers behind we are rarely troubled by them. But imagine if you were flying in an airship of the 1920s instead. We recently added to the BL Collection a map designed for just that – Map showing the frequency of thunderstorms during the month of June on the England-Egypt section of the England-India airship route.

Map showing the frequency of thunderstorms during the month of June on the England-Egypt section of the England-India airship route in 1926.

Maps X.12816.

The map was made at the British War Office in 1926 and is a product of the Imperial Airship Scheme, a Government initiative of the 1920s to create a commercial airship route between Britain and the furthest parts of the Empire. The sheet shows three alternative routes for comparison, concluding that the most western and southerly of the three is the least likely to encounter difficulty.

The thought of negotiating thunderstorms at all in an England-India airship is frankly terrifying, and despite the careful planning evidenced by this sheet, the initiative came to a tragic end when one of the airships designed to fly the route crashed in France on its maiden voyage overseas in 1930.

Far more re-assuring is this recent donation to the BL. The Pilots’ Free Flight Atlas - Eastern Hemisphere, is a colourful collection of topographical mapping of Europe, South-East Asia and the Middle East overlaid with aeronautical information – radio beacons, airspace reservations, waypoints, airfields and runway lengths…

The cover image of 'The Pilots’ Free Flight Atlas - Eastern Hemisphere', 2009.

Maps 2019.a.24.

A number of thematic pages include political maps, a star chart and a sheet entitled Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East showing the main wind directions and strengths in January and in July alongside bar charts giving precipitation and temperature data for selected locations throughout the year.

Detail of a map entitled 'Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East', 2009

Detail of ‘Climate/Winds in Europe, North Africa, Middle East’ Maps 2019.a.24. page 8

Not being an aviation expert I don’t know the frequency with which commercial pilots might turn to this volume in-flight, but as a layman I am re-assured by the detailed information it provides, and the calm and efficient manner in which it is conveyed on backgrounds of natural greens and blues. Not to mention the section on Dos and Don’ts during Thunderstorm Avoidance – ‘Avoiding thunderstorms is the best policy’ remains as true as ever.


Nick Dykes

Project Manager, Modern Maps


19 April 2019

British Empire maps of Africa added online

Around the turn of the 20th century the British War Office in London maintained a library of original, mostly hand-drawn mapping that covered large parts of the world where detailed and reliable surveys were not otherwise available. The maps were gathered from a rich variety of sources including military expeditions, boundary commissions, explorers, travellers, missionaries and spies, and they were used by the War Office for making and revising official printed products.

The maps are now held at the British Library in the 'War Office Archive', and generous funding from Indigo Trust has allowed us to continue cataloguing, conserving and digitising portions relating to Africa, where the archive provides unique details of settlements, populations, communications and land-use immediately before and during the period of European settlement.

Most recently we have digitised maps relating to the former Transvaal Colony, including sheets made during the South African War, also called the Second Boer War. 'Survey of Position Held by Enemy near Belfast. August 1900’ was made in the days following the Battle of Bergendal, the last pitched battle and a turning point in the war. The map is hand-drawn to a high standard, perhaps in anticipation of reproduction and publication, but this appears to be a unique copy.

A map showing the Position held by the enemy near Belfast, South Africa, in August 1900

Detail of 'Survey of Position Held by Enemy near Belfast. August 1900’ WOMAT/AFR/TRA/23

Gun emplacements and rifle pits are shown in red, alongside detailed contour work and rock drawings. Plans and profiles of enemy gun positions are provided around the sides of the map.

A picture of a gun emplacement in South Africa
An image of a gun emplacement

Details of WOMAT/AFR/TRA/23

In a less finished style, but with no less detail, is the following ‘Road Sketch’ from 1906, which shows a 200-mile stretch of the boundary between present-day South Africa and Mozambique. It too is made with an eye on military logistics, and provides details of terrain and road conditions, availability of food and water, and the characteristics and numbers of personnel at forts along the route. All of which provides rich data for present-day researchers.

A map showing the road from Komati Poort To Messangire

Detail of ‘Road Sketch From Komati Poort To Messangire’ WOMAT/AFR/TRA/47

There are now a total of 1,840 map images from the archive available to view on the BL website or to download from Wikimedia, covering large parts of eastern and southern Africa. The catalogue records and images can also be browsed from the geographical search page, shown below.

An image of the geographical search page for the War Office Archive maps


Nick Dykes

Project Manager, Modern Maps