What is Cartography?

August 22, 2018 3 min read

A medieval depiction of the known world (1482, Johannes Schnitzer, engraver), constructed after the coordinates in Ptolemy's Geography and using his second map projection

By Ishveena Singh

The ancient discipline of cartography can be defined as the art, science, and study of map-making which typically uses a geographical area as a base. On this graphic representation, further relationships may be established using non-geographical elements, such as political or cultural information. The word itself is derived from Medieval Latin word ‘carta’ that loosely translates to a leaf of paper, and ‘graphy’ which refers to the act of recording.

Tracing the Roots: History of Cartography

The first recordings of cartographic activities can be traced back to the earliest civilizations. Though many reckon the time-worn wall painting of the ancient Anatolian city of Çatalhöyük as the earliest recorded map, here’s an excellent article detailing why it is not. We do, however, have consensus on the Babylonians drawing the first maps on flattened clay tablets, dating back to 2300BC. The spherical Earth made its first appearance in the eight-volume work of Claudius Ptolemaeus, Geōgraphikē hyphēgēsis (Guide to Geography) in the 2nd Century.

The maps that followed this era are often called ‘T Maps’. Using Jerusalem as the center, these maps only showed the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, separated by the Mediterranean Sea and Nile River in the shape of T.

Nautical chart by Pedro Reinel (c. 1504) is one of the first based on astronomical observations and to depict a scale of latitudes


It wasn’t until the 15th Century that the Age of Exploration began and more accurate geographical representations of the world became available. Europeans led the way in this New World, conducting extensive surveys and devising new techniques that could depict the features of a curved surface on a flat expanse (projection).

Soon, the process of triangulation came into play and cartographers started using inventions like telescope and compass to create much more detailed maps. Apart from selecting the best projection, mapmakers would often find themselves confronted with problems like selecting the map’s agenda and traits to be mapped (editing); reducing the complexity of the mapped objects (generalization); and orchestrating map elements in a way that best convey its message (design).

A 1730 world map as drawn by Stoopendaal for publication in the Keur Bible

Politics and Big Data: Modern Cartography

Today, the science and art of map-making have become a global discipline, with techniques like aerial surveys, photogrammetry and the use of satellite imagery providing much more accurate measurements. But that’s not to say that all modern maps are accurate. Countries have been known to manipulate maps to influence national thought, especially at the time of World War II.

How Google Maps alters borders based on the country you’re viewing from. Courtesy: Reddit

Even in the present day, one of the world’s most-used smartphone app, Google Maps, customizes its maps to follow the beliefs of individual countries. It is not uncommon to see different country or state borders for the same geographical area if you look at Google Maps from conflict regions.

 A made-to-order map of Switzerland based on real elevation data

But even if you leave politics aside, modern cartography is much more than a wayfinding tool. Blurring the lines between the physical and the digital world, modern maps have become visual powerhouses showing a great deal of information in an easy-to-understand manner.

Cartography is the underpinning of a geographic information system (GIS). And no matter how much we automate mapmaking, both cartography and GIS will continue to remain relevant and complement each other.

About the Author

Photo of Ishveena SinghIshveena is a geospatial enthusiast and a veteran of creating and managing compelling digital content for organizations and individuals. When she is not making magic at her desk, you are likely to find her exploring nature, eating her way through life, or binge-watching funny animal videos.