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Why historical maps remain as important today as the day they were scribed with quill and ink.
Our specialist GIS mapping department, CADS Mapping, is in the final stages of a project to georectify over 150 historical “Tithe Maps” for Hertfordshire Archive and Local Studies, the second project of this kind after the successful collaboration with West Yorkshire Archive Service’s “Tracks in Time” project in 2009. Here, Senior Cartographer Alan Walsh, highlights the lasting importance of these historical documents.
Anyone who watched BBC 4’s “The Beauty of Maps” would find it difficult not to agree with the sentiment that historical maps are vividly colourful snapshots of a landscape now forgotten. Their remaining value can only be determined by the age, rarity and aesthetic appeal. I’m not convinced that these are the only qualities which instil value in these historical document; a growing number of organisations are beginning to think the same way as they look to dust off the cobwebs and bring these historical treasures out of the archives and into the bright light of the modern age. Old maps are being reborn using the process of scanning and georectification, so that they can be accessed across digital networks, immeasurably increasing their accessibility, allowing the next generation a tantalising glimpse at the long forgotten foundations of our modern landscape.
Georectifa-what? is usually the first question so I will endeavour to explain.
A physical map is merely a piece of paper (or parchment…) with a series of lines and symbols printed upon it. You may be able to take a guess as to what those lines and symbols depict, but you are still left with the question where is this location? You could look for names on the map to give you an idea of where you might be but this method can be extremely unreliable. Did you know there are three towns in England called Standon? Four Coldecotes, seven Newnhams and there are Watfords in both Northamptonshire and Hertfordshire! Only the addition of geographic positional information (e.g. the British National Grid, utilised by Ordnance Survey products) gives the user a location to start using the map from.
The same rule applies to computer based mapping. The map image on screen has to be given a “real location” by assigning a series of known location points to it from a specified geographical projection or co-ordinate system (simply put, how the world is depicted when “flattened” from its global shape).
OK, so that’s the how? Next is the why bother?
In the same way that TV programmes such as “Who do you think you are?” and websites such as “Ancestry.co.uk” allow us to trace our origins as individuals, these historical maps allow us to look at the origins of our surroundings, the places we know, the villages, towns and cities we grew up in, and to see how time and the progress of our society have altered our living environment.
That is their true value.