Mapping Historical Data

August 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Mapping historical data has particular challenges which may not apply to contemporary data. These challenges include the sourcing of data. Nowadays we have access to imaging technologies such as multi-layered radar, aerial and satellite imagery. Historically, maps had to make do with non-photographic means of surveying and documentation (resulting in less geospatial, but more cultural methods of identifying landmarks), often commissioned by the wealthy or the state (which can result in a similar, heavy, bias). Due to variances in perspectives, historic texts could tell different stories.
( The famous medieval Mappa Mundi (digitally retouched) )
Historic data are also subjected to different local cultural and religious societal hierarchies (as compared to our current, more globalized, form, for example, symbols of churches). As such, they often indicate unique cultural intricacies, on different projections and scales (including time instead of space). This contrasts a majority of our modern maps which have undergone a global uniformity, with similar scales, narrow selection of projections, devoid of local symbols and reflective our current utilitarianistic, minimalist social culture.
Many maps have been drawn for different purposes such as modes of transport, and as our transport system has changed over the centuries, so too have these representations.Maps have always helped contextualize different situations, bringing them into their own reality, to aid in the assertion of power and education. The act of drawing boundaries helps control areas, and review crucial state statistics. This can be seen in Europe in the 1700s when Finland and Sweden began keeping (the earliest) continuous records of their population from 1749 in the ‘Tabellverket’. The act of such a system, revealed a diminished population, weaknesses/health, helped set boundaries, and, with the gradual rise in the collection of further demographic statistics, the recognized need for education.

One of the more famous historic maps is John Snow’s map on victims of the London, Broad Street, Cholera Outbreak. His map supported his claim that cholera spread by contaminated water, from a specific pump, by showing death’s by cholera in the context of a map (with documentation).Maps have continued to be used for the maintenance and analysis of such systems and effects. Though with computers, we can stop pouring through long tabular lists (often replicated multiple times with potential build-up of errors), and use technologies, databases, and visualization to create maps from larger and more diverse datum of aggregated and normalized information. This modern age has allowed us to test hypothesis’ with simulations, identify relationships from various attributes, and more efficiently discover (or initiate inquiries into) different objects through globalized divisions of labour.



  • BBC Documentary, (2011). The Beauty of Maps.
  • BBC Documentary, (2010). The Joy of Stats.
  • Harley, J.B., (1989).  Deconstructing the Map, Cartographica Vol 26 No 2 1989 PP 1-20.
  • Johnson, S., (2007). The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–And How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World.
  • Nordstrom, B.J., (2002). The History of Sweden.
  • Statistics Sweden, Statistics Sweden’s History,, Accessed 08/08/2011.
Check out the (start of the) Beauty of Maps documentary:

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