Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Elephant No. 10: Mapping

The earliest known map is the sixth-century B.C. Babylonian World Map, incised in stone. Other early maps include the sixth-century B.C. Anaximander Map, which locates the Aegean Sea at the centre of the world's three continents (Europe, Asia and Libya); and the surprisingly accurate Ptolemy Map of A.D. 150.

By medieval times, there were world maps, regional maps, maps of trade routes, and even pilgrimage maps showing the faithful every shrine and church along the way. In addition to land maps, there were also maps of the heavens, and sea charts indicating the location of known dangers—including the odd sea monster.

The first reasonably accurate maps were not drawn until the Renaissance, when greater exploration by both land and sea gave people a better idea of how the world actually looked. From then on, maps improved with every advance in navigational equipment, and every newly established trade route or settlement.

Today's maps are created using computers, satellites and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). They can map everything from rainfall to the location of small populations of endangered animals. They can also be redrawn quickly when changes occur—as in the aftermath of a tsunami, hurricane or earthquake.

When I originally thought of doing something related to maps, my first idea was to draw a mythical country in the shape of an elephant. I figured I could make it look like a medieval chart, with things like "Here be dragons" on the edge of the known world, and little sea monsters poking their heads out of the oceans. Then I decided that it might be more interesting and challenging to find an elephant shape within an existing map.

The rules I set myself were these: I could only cut along lines that already existed on an actual map, such as rivers, political boundaries, roads, mountain ranges, oceans and lakes. I toyed with buying a map of either India or Africa, given that those are the traditional homes of elephants. I figured, however, that it might be too easy to cheat by cutting along whatever tiny little geographical feature suited me best. So I decided on a map of London, England instead.

The reason I chose London—apart from it being my favourite city—is that it's a city with a long history. This would give me lots of curving lines to play with, which I wouldn't have in a city that's built on a grid. London also has a place called Elephant and Castle, which I decided to use as the elephant's eye.

Cutting an elephant out of a map was actually harder than I expected. Although I could see an elephant shape almost immediately, once I was contending with actual roads, it was difficult to find the lines I needed. It didn't help that I'd limited my options by determining the eye ahead of time.

I started by cutting along the trunk, which was the most obvious line to me. Then I could see an ear to the right, flying in the wind, so I cut that. Then I thought I saw another raised ear, so I cut that, too. Unfortunately, then it started looking like Dumbo from the Walt Disney film, or maybe a vampire bat. So I cut off the second ear, then the first.

I had no idea how to contend with the body, since it would have trailed off the bottom of the map. To make matters worse, the toplines were really weird. I thought I might deal with the problem by cutting along the grid lines, making it sort of abstract. But that looked stupid, because the squares on this particular map were so big. So I cut off the squares as well, ultimately leaving just the head.

The elephant originally had a higher forehead, but I didn't like that, either, so I shaved bits of it away. I would have liked a much thinner trunk as well, but there weren't enough streets in that part of the map. If I'd started whittling away at the trunk along the available lines, it would have looked like it had been nibbled by meerkats or bandicoots.

I also had to contend with some very strange street configurations in the ear area, making the ear tip interestingly raggedy.

When I was done, I darkened the eye so that it was a little more obvious, but decided not to darken any of the other lines. It's a little less abstract in real life, when you can look at it up close. I think that, if I were to try this again, I wouldn't limit myself to a specific starting point.

One of my favourite writers on London is Iain Sinclair. In his book London Orbital, he details a journey along London's ring road, the M25, in a highly personal but compelling account. It makes me think that, the next time I go to London, I should consider taking this map with me to try and walk its circumference. Good thing I didn't cut any of the lines in the middle of the Thames.

Elephant Lore of the Day
In today's London, Elephant and Castle is a major road intersection, occupying the former site of an eighteenth-century coaching inn by the same name. Before the inn was built, the site was occupied by a blacksmith and cutler (a maker of knives and weapons with a cutting edge). This is probably where the name originally came from, as the coat of arms of the Worshipful Company of Cutlers features an elephant with a castle on its back. The Worshipful Company chose the elephant for their coat of arms because of the once-extensive use of elephant ivory in knife handles.

Elephant and Castle was badly bombed in the Blitz in 1941, but was extensively redeveloped in the 1960s. It now includes an office tower called Hannibal House—named for the Carthaginian general who crossed the Alps with elephants in 218 B.C.

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society 


  1. I'm really enjoying seeing what can be done with the same subject in different mediums.

    Have you thought of auctioning them on ebay or etsy?

  2. Thanks, Peter! That's not a bad idea, once I've got a few more of them done...