May 5 – Head East, Young Man

Today’s Factismal: We “orient” maps because East used to be at the top.

Though it might seem strange to anyone using Google Maps, North hasn’t always been at the top of maps. Instead, early maps were frequently drawn with other directions at the top. For example, some maps of ancient Egypt had the Nile running from left to right which put West at the top. And maps from Japan would place the capital of Edo at the top. But during the Middle Ages, it was common to center maps of the world on Jerusalem and to have the River Jordan running from right to left; as a result, East was at the top.

The Hereford Mappa Mundi (Hereford World Map) with Jerusalem in the center and East at the top

The Hereford Mappa Mundi (Hereford World Map) with Jerusalem in the center and East at the top

Because the Latin word for “East” was “oriens”, we learned to “orient” a map by placing East at the top. But the problem with putting East at the top is that you can always go further East. If you start in America and head East, you’ll hit Europe. Keep going and you’ll be in Asia. Keep swimming East and you’ll be back in America. There’s no way to put a pin in the map and say “that’s the end of East”.

However, you can do that with North and South. There is just so far North that you can go before you start to head South, and just so far South that you can go before you start to head North. And, because most people lived in northern climes when the conventions were established, putting North as the top of the map became the standard (much to the chagrin of Australians ever since).

And there is no end to map-making. As we discover more about our world and find more information, we must create newer and better maps. If you’d like to take a whack at it, then head over to the National Map Corps and volunteer to make a map or three.
https://my.usgs.gov/confluence/display/nationalmapcorps/Home

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