These Centuries-Old Maps Were Meant to Be Read By Touch

Colleen Morgan via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0
Colleen Morgan via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0 / Colleen Morgan via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY 2.0

It’s easy to think that data is data, and that the way we visualize and share information has more to do with the information itself than it has to do with us. The truth is that data is far more subjective, personal, and cultural than that. When Americans and Europeans think of maps, we tend to picture flat, colorful drawings covered with squiggly lines. But for native Greenlanders living in the 16th to 19th centuries, maps were more of a hands-on experience.

Greenlanders would carve wooden maps, and they were as functional as they are aesthetically appealing. The maps, made of driftwood, are designed to be read not with the eyes, but with the fingers. Their small size made it possible for navigators to slip them into their mittens while kayaking, allowing them to follow along without exposing their hands to the punishing Arctic cold. The wooden maps were waterproof and buoyant, and they were just as easily read in the dark—an important feature in a country that can get less than four hours of sunlight per day in the winter.

The maps made full use of each piece of wood. The coastline wraps around the entire object, with dips and peaks representing islands, fjords, and glaciers. As Swedish cartographic archivist Ib Kejlbo has noted, “[t]he wooden map is the embodiment of the basic principles of presentday cartography, being the reproduction of a locality, seen from above, scaled down, and where distances between landmarks are kept in correct proportion.”

In 2000, the Greenland postal service released a stamp celebrating the wooden maps’ ingenuity and cultural significance.

Wooden maps, albeit of an entirely different form, were also used by another seafaring people: the Polynesians. Their so-called stick charts look incredibly simple, but were so complex—taking into account not only geography but also the movement of the ocean—that they could often only be read by the navigator who created them.