Review: Time in Maps

G.T. Dempsey


Kären Wigen and Caroline Winterer, eds. Time in Maps: From the Age of Discovery to Our Digital Era (University of Chicago Press, 2020), pp. xiv, 231  ISBN: 9780226718590
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Time in Maps book cover

     This sumptuously-illustrated large-sized book serves, effectively, as a celebration of the development of GIS.  Originating in a conference on ‘Time in Space: Representing Time in Maps’ held at Stanford University in November 2017, the starting-point of the collected essays is the phenomenon that maps, in this era of digital mapping, now represent not just space but time:  as the Introduction puts it, ‘Maps Tell Time.’  

     GIS (Geographic Information Systems) has revolutionized cartography by enabling scholars to represent ‘large amounts of data in a spatial rather than textual format.’  This ability to represent historical data spatially has revolutionized both research methods and the representation of scholarly findings.  Literally, GIS inserts ‘a sense of time’ into mapping – a concept graphically demonstrated by the book-cover illustration of ‘The Geologic Time Spiral’ (Deep Time as an ascending thickening spiral).

Geologic Time Spiral: A Path to the Past. Design by Joseph Graham, William Neman, and John Stacy, USGS, Department of the Interior, 2008.
Geologic Time Spiral: A Path to the Past. Design by Joseph Graham, William Neman, and John Stacy, USGS, Department of the Interior, 2008.

     It is not, however, the editors’ intent to privilege GIS per se at the expense of traditional cartography.  But, rather, ‘to interpret the advent of digital mappings as an invitation to explore older maps with fresh eyes.’  With an historical starting point of a half-millenium and a bit ago (from 1450 on, cartography proliferated along with the printing press and the demand for charts driven by the Age of Exploration), a feast of cartographic history ensues, based on five principles:  First, that ‘self-consciously historical maps’ were a hallmark of the early modern age, viewed globally – from Europe to pre-Columbian America to Japan, historical cartography flourished.  Secondly, ‘static’ (that is, non-animated) maps accommodate time in ‘surprisingly versatile’ ways.  As illustration of this, on the ‘Mapa de Sigüenza,’ from the late sixteenth-early seventeenth century, the Mesoamerican map-maker drew tiny black footsteps which ‘wandered around turquoise lagoons and cactus-covered hills’ to trace the path the Aztecs took in their migration from their homeland in Aztlan to the Valley of Mexico.  We are told that the Aztecs did not ‘believe that space was a preexisting entity; [rather] space had to be brought into being through time.’  Thus, though today the Aztec map lies flat (and silent), to the Aztecs it gave their life ‘physical space, and positioned it in the historical time of human beings and the cosmic time of the gods.’

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Mapa de Sigüenza, 16th century.  Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH, National Institute of Anthropology and History) via World Digital Library.
Mapa de Sigüenza, 16th century. Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (INAH, National Institute of Anthropology and History) via World Digital Library.

     Thirdly, diversity persists.  Today, most atlases ‘display a stock repertoire’ of standardized symbols and indicators.  Not so at the beginning of our historical period, when ‘maps created in cosmopolitan settings on different continents’ presented strikingly different looks, so that decoding such historical maps from the early modern world requires ‘significant engagement with local languages and histories.’  And, increasingly not so these days as well, as digital technology enables ‘communities worldwide…to insist on their own distinctive ways of recording time in maps.’  Fourthly, ‘All maps tell time.’  Quite simply, investigating the deliberate recording of time in maps must not be allowed to obscure ‘the fundamental fact that times leaves its mark on all spatial images.’  Fifthly, and finally, how we use, peruse, and store (‘archive’) maps can change how they tell time.  Any given map was created to tell a particular story.  Over time, this initial purpose is outlived.  When brought together with maps of other historical periods, each map ‘tells time’ in a new way.  One tellingly mundane example of this would be the disposable maps that gas stations used to hand out for free.  ‘By dint of being collected, curated, and conserved,’ they come to function no longer as a means of providing needed information in the present but ‘as clues for reconstructing the past.’

     The book’s nine chapters are divided into three sections, dealing with ‘Pacific Asia’ (primarily early modern Japan and, separately, Jesuit maps in China and Korea); ‘The Atlantic World’ (the Aztecs on one side of the Atlantic and ‘Antiquarianism’ in mapping on the European side); and ‘The United States’ (from the first American maps of ‘Deep Time’ to the mapping of war).  These sections are preceded by an Introduction (already cited) and a theoretical ‘salvo’ which details the means by which static maps ‘incorporate time in their design’ and, thus, sets the technical stage for all that follows.  

     The co-editors are both professors of history at Stanford, one’s expertise lying in early modern Japanese history and the history of cartography and the other’s in classicism in the Enlightenment.  The eight contributors are all of equal scholarly standing, and their individual contributions both reflect this and, by interacting with each other, playing off each other, create a greater whole.  Histories of cartography have an in-built advantage:  their historical illustrations are works-of-art; their contemporary examples are technological marvels.  But the analytical scholarship on display in this collection raises it all to a different and altogether satisfying level.

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About the author
G.T. Dempsey
G.T. Dempsey is a Research Associate in the history of Late Antiquity at the University of California at Davis and, as a retired American career diplomat, he is also a commentator on American foreign policy.