ancient world map


The temptation to rub out the glitches confronts all artists and even scientists. An example where art and science intermingle is map illustrators of centuries ago. A document of the world’s geography rendered from pen and brush described by Chet Raymo in his piece ‘Filling in the Blanks’

  • “For most of the Christian centuries — until the 14th — maps of the world were commonly centered on Jerusalem and those parts of the globe of which the cartographers had no knowledge were filled in willy-nilly as their imaginations ran riot, often with totally fictitious lands, monsters and aberrations of every sort. It has been suggested that the Catalan Atlas of 1375 was the first European cartographic production to omit what it did not know. As Daniel Boorstin has written: ‘In an impressive feat of self-control, the cartographer actually left parts of the earth blank.’…The courage to leave blank. To have unanswered questions. To say "I don’t know." This, I would suggest, is the grandest achievement of the European Scientific Revolution. It is not, of course, even today, a prevailing view. Most folks still fill in their conceptual maps of the world with imaginary constructs, most commonly that portmanteau ‘answer’ to every unanswered question, God.”

The commentary on olden day chroniclers reminded me of a ‘filling in the blank’ matter of modern ones. The famous ‘Question 17’ of the UK census (see below). All sorts of conspiracy theories circulated about this mysterious paperwork void. Actually, the truth was a bit mundane (probably like many of the unchartered places of ancient maps which had more desert and expanses of ocean than ‘there be sea monsters here…’)…

  • “We aim to keep the England and Wales questionnaires as consistent as possible. Question 17 is about the Welsh language and is only included on the questionnaire in Wales. This question is not required in both countries, so a space has been left.”

Scientists and artists alike need to avoid the temptation to fill in the blanks with speculation and gloss.

UK Census question 17 intentionally left blank