The thing I hadn’t realised about maps…November 10, 2010
…is how political they are. Call me naive (although I’d rather you didn’t), but I’d always assumed that a map just – well, showed you what’s there. Or what used to be there, when it was drawn up. But no. Choices must be made.
This first began to dawn on me when the publishers wanted a map for the front of the second Ruso book. What to include? All the Roman roads and towns and forts? Even if we knew where they all were (and some float about, depending on who you ask) there wasn’t room. Besides, it would have looked a mess. Just how much of a mess may be surmised from the rough draft on the Book 2 page.
The places crucial to the story are there, but important Army bases like Gloucester and Exeter and Caerleon are invisible. Major towns like Silchester and Verulamium don’t seem to exist. And there’s not a road in sight. Leaving them out may have suggested that the story took place in a few key spots surrounded by vast tracts of emptiness, but at least no-one could complain that it was cluttered.
David Mattingley makes a telling point in ‘An Imperial Possession – Britain in the Roman Empire’ – a book I’ve just finished and found very thought-provoking. Observing the map-makers’ priorities, he points out that the Ordnance Survey Map of Roman Britain is precisely that – a map of the Roman-style constructions found in Britain. He says, “In areas where Roman site ‘types’ are uncommon (notably… Cornwall, Wales and northern Britain), the maps appear empty apart from Roman military installations standing guard over large capital letters denoting ‘tribal’ names… what is omitted from such maps is the settlement evidence relating to the vast majority of the population.”
This isn’t a criticism. There just isn’t room for everything. Choices must be made. Don’t you think, though, that the Ordnance Survey’s choices would have gone down awfully well in Rome? Britannia without all those pesky barbarian round houses, brochs* and disused hillforts messing it up. Mission accomplished!
*brochs are those forbidding-looking ancient stone towers found mostly (only?) in Scotland.