Maps: Location, Scale & Orientation

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Maps are something we assume will look a certain way, but that's not always true. In this lesson we will explore the real definition of maps and see how various people have used them.


The advent of the digital age has threatened many of our cultural traditions. There is one, in particular, that is facing extinction: the ability to fold a map. If we want to preserve this most-important of American traditions, we need to make people understand what this means. We need an awareness campaign. So, let's talk about maps. Maps, technically speaking, are symbolic representations of physical space. That's what maps do; they depict the relationship of things in physical space in ways we can understand. Now, when we think of maps, we imagine a very specific kind of document. But, that's not what maps mean to everybody. Different cultures have used different forms of maps, reflecting different ways of understanding the Earth and physical space. So, there's no one right way to make a map. But is there a right way to fold a map? Oh, you betcha.


At their most basic, maps are meant to help identify the placement of things in physical space. That means that one of the most fundamental duties of a map is to provide a sense of location. Location, in technical terms, is a point in physical space. So, if maps depict physical space, the items on them are locations. The ultimate function of a map is to record and determine the location of things. Now, sometimes this is a location in relation to other things, as in a treasure map that where X is located to the left of the rock that looks like a skull. Other times, location is more specific. In the modern, digital age, absolute location refers to the exact position of something on the planet Earth, expressed as coordinates of longitude and latitude. For example, I live in Greeley, Colorado. The official coordinates of my city are 40.4167 degrees N, 104.7167 degrees W. In terms of absolute location, that's where I live. Of course, you have to be able to read latitude and longitude to know what that means.

On this map from Treasure Island, X marks the location
Treasure map


When it comes to actually determining the location of things on a map, another very important concept is scale. The scale of the map is the ratio between the image on the map and actual physical space. In the modern world, we like our maps to be very scientifically accurate, so the scale is very important. The scale of a map often looks something like this: 1:10,000. What this means is that 1 unit on the map equals 10,000 units in real life. So, if the scale is 1 inch:10,000 feet, every inch on the map represents 10,000 feet in reality. Again, this is how we like our maps to be today, but not all maps were always like this. In pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, for example, maps had a very different scale. Locations on a map were arranged by importance, so the larger it was, the more significant it was to the map user. The scale wasn't meant to represent real, physical space, but instead to represent space as it mattered to the people of Mesoamerica.

This Aztec map uses a different scale than modern maps
Aztec Map

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