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Map-making, sharing space, and Masking Multitudes

Katherine Bellamy | Lancaster University
Issue 02 - December 2020
Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico

‘Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico’ from the Second Letter of Hernán Cortés, (Nuremberg, 1524).


     efining a map may seem straightforward, though there exists such great variety in the style and content of maps – across both time and space – that any definition should avoid being too restrictive. A map should necessarily depict relationships between elements of space and place, but these relationships can be depicted in any number of ways, with the potential to produce infinite unique representations of the same subject matter. In a modern context, we have largely become accustomed to a very particular way of representing space and place. Opening any map search on your internet browser of choice will present you with a style of map that is derived from a Euclidean, Cartesian tradition. This simply means a depiction of space that utilises a Cartesian coordinate system (describing the location of a point using numerical coordinates) that, in turn, is based upon mathematical notions of space as defined by Euclidean geometry.

Map of Mexico City

Figure 1: Two maps showing roughly the same extent of central Mexico City. You can view a georeferenced version of the 1811 map here.

Above: Google Maps, Mexico City; Mexico, (Map data 2020, Google). Retrieved 9 October 2020; Below: Diego García Conde and Edward Mogg, Plan general de la Ciudad de Mexico, (London, 1811).

Diego García Conde and Edward Mogg, Plan general de la Ciudad de Mexico, (London, 1811).

     These maps serve their intended function well. If you need to get from Point A to Point B, these maps can accurately guide you along Route 1 (or Route 2, if you fancy a more scenic option) to arrive at your destination. Some additional information may be included (though always constrained by the scale of the map) – a museum is located on this street, a tourist information centre on another – but these maps ultimately tell us very little about the places themselves. What is the history of Point A? What is the relationship between Point A and Point B? Whose land do you pass through when travelling along Route 1 or 2? Answering these questions would, of course, require an entirely different type of map.

   It is at this point, when starting to consider what exactly we want from a depiction of space and place, that we can begin to broaden our understanding of what a map is. Any map ultimately boils down to a specific perception of the world, depicted in a particular style onto a given medium. Not all maps rely on the same understanding of space, however. On the contrary, there exists great scope for individuality: maps facilitate the sharing of worldviews, restricted only by the mapmaker’s ability to convey meaning. Recognising this great flexibility of expression offers a fleeting insight into both the worldview and motives of the author. Each decision made by the mapmaker inscribes meaning, resulting in a final product that is designed to convince the reader of a certain reality. It is this aspect of maps – their ability to convince and persuade, often with great subtlety – which makes them a powerful, and potentially misleading, means of communication.

Masking Multitudes

Maps contain multitudes. Each layer of information simultaneously shares and obscures certain details in order to create a map that is functional. This omission of information is essential to create a map that serves its purpose: a map with too much overlaying detail becomes crowded and unreadable. As such, information must be carefully selected to ensure that the reader has just the right amount of context in order to understand what the map is showing. A map tells us a great deal about a place, but the hidden details often tell us a great deal more. It is important, therefore, to consider the reading of maps, rather than simple observation. Reading a map critically, interrogating the reasoning behind its creation, can reveal these hidden details and allow us to question why they were omitted by the author. For those studying historic maps (or those attempting to recreate historical geographies), it is vital to recognise the complexity hidden within these reconstructions of space and place. As Mark Monmonier points out in his unambiguously-titled work, How to Lie with Maps, all maps are “subject to distortions arising from ignorance, greed, ideological blindness, or malice.”[1] These distortions (whether made consciously or not) come in many forms, with the power to persuade and mislead.

     Interrogating the content and intended purpose of any given map is, therefore, of the utmost importance. Maps have a long tradition of being used to create or fuel narratives that serve certain agendas, being used as vehicles of propaganda, disinformation, erasure and much more. The selective nature of map-making, whilst essential for the creation of effective maps, also allows for the deliberate omission of information which could conflict with the narrative being portrayed. Cartographer and geographer J. B. Harley, speaking of this process, highlights that “the steps in making a map - selection, omission, simplification, classification, the creation of hierarchies, and 'symbolization' - are all inherently rhetorical.”[2]  Beneath the myriad ways in which maps omit and craft information – the seemingly stylistic choices that determine the use of space, colour and symbology to lead and mislead – it should be noted that the template upon which these narratives are inscribed is itself a crafted version of reality. Attempting to flatten our three-dimensional (and imperfectly spherical) Earth onto a two-dimensional surface is fraught with challenges. This process of transformation requires both the preservation and sacrifice of certain features in order to display a certain projection of the Earth’s surface: maintaining area but distorting shape, for example. As such, there are countless different projections designed to serve their own particular purpose. [i]


    The Mercator projection, which remains the ‘standard’ for many, is not exempt from these distortions. Dating back to the sixteenth century, this projection prioritises the preservation of local shapes at the expense of the size of these shapes. Designed as a tool for maritime navigation, this projection serves its intended purpose well but is inadequate in other contexts. The spatial area of landmasses is completely skewed, with the northern and southern extremities of the map (i.e. Greenland and Antarctica) becoming greatly exaggerated, with areas closer to the Equator appearing smaller by comparison.

[i] For an interactive demonstration of the variety of different projections, and to reorient (or perhaps disorient) your view of the earth, I’d recommend taking a look at Jason Davies’ Map Projections Transitions. And for a visualisation of how the Earth’s surface is being distorted when geographic projections are applied, an interactive tool is available here.

Animated GIF demonstrating the spatial distortions that occur when applying the ‘globe’ view vs. Mercator projection on Google Maps

Figure 2: Animated GIF demonstrating the spatial distortions that occur when applying the ‘globe’ view vs. Mercator projection on Google Maps.

Google Maps, (Map data 2020, Google). Retrieved 9 October 2020.

    Many online mapping services today use a variation of the Mercator projection known as Web Mercator. This functions well as an interactive, zoomable map, but maintains the same limitations discussed above. Despite the widespread usage of Mercator, alternative projections would often be more appropriate. Of course, each of these projections also make sacrifices. The mapmaker must decide precisely what compromises their map will make, which will depend entirely on the map’s content and purpose. Figure 3, for example, demonstrates how Mexico appears in a variety of different projections. Shown at the top, Mexico ITRF2008 is a projection designed for depicting Mexico’s full extent. Comparing this to the other projections shown, it is clear that each projection prioritises different aspects in order to serve its particular purpose: North Pole Orthographic, predictably, prioritises a view of the North Pole; Spilhaus, meanwhile, shows uninterrupted oceans at the expense of continental distortion.

A series of different projections, with Mexico highlighted to demonstrate distortions that occur. From top to bottom, then left to right: Mexico ITRF2008, Mollweide, Equidistant Cylindrical, North Pole Orthographic, Spilhaus, Azimuthal Equidistant.

Figure 3: A series of different projections, with Mexico highlighted to demonstrate distortions that occur. From top to bottom, then left to right: Mexico ITRF2008, Mollweide, Equidistant Cylindrical, North Pole Orthographic, Spilhaus, Azimuthal Equidistant.

    You may also notice that most of the projections shown above use the same central meridian (line of longitude): the Prime Meridian of Greenwich. Centring on the United Kingdom, use of the Prime Meridian (decided at the International Meridian Conference in 1884) is itself a cartographic choice.

Sharing Space

There is no single way to draw a map, despite the fact that so many of the maps we see today are embedded within a Cartesian, Euclidean tradition. One of the most visible examples of maps today which depart from this tradition is that of schematic transport maps, such as the network maps of Mexico City shown below. Maps such as the one on the left abandon geographic ‘accuracy’ in favour of illustrating connections between stations along a route, creating a network of straight lines and points to allow the user to easily identify their required route. Comparing this schematic map to the one shown to the right, which shows the same transport routes overlaid on top of the street-level road network, it is possible to see how each map prioritises different elements of space to produce distinct views of the same subject matter.

CDMX Metro, ‘Mapa de Movilidad Integrada de la Ciudad de México’, Gobierno de la Ciudad de México
CDMX Metro, ‘Mapa de La Red con calles y avenidas’, Gobierno de la Ciudad de México

Figure 4: Maps showing Mexico City’s Metro network

Left: CDMX Metro, ‘Mapa de Movilidad Integrada de la Ciudad de México’, Gobierno de la Ciudad de México, Retrieved 9 October 2020; Right: CDMX Metro, ‘Mapa de La Red con calles y avenidas’, Gobierno de la Ciudad de México, Retrieved 9 October 2020.

    This prioritisation of different elements of space in the creation of maps is nothing new. Throughout history and across different societies, mapmakers have demonstrated their ingenuity in depicting spatial relationships that go far beyond what we might expect from a map today.

   The two maps of Mexico City’s Metro network above inhabit the same geographic space that was once the centre of what is commonly referred to as the ‘Aztec Empire’. A map of this same location 500 years ago would instead show the great city of Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco.

Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico’ from the Second Letter of Hernán Cortés, (Nuremberg, 1524).

Figure 5: ‘Map of Tenochtitlan and the Gulf of Mexico’ from the Second Letter of Hernán Cortés, (Nuremberg, 1524).

The Gulf of Mexico is depicted to the left of the image, with a larger-scale depiction of Tenochtitlan with its key causeways across Lake Texcoco to the right of the image. The map is oriented with North at the base.

    Known as a great altepetl (city-state) in Nahuatl (the language of this empire), Tenochtitlan and its sister-city Tlatelolco formed the most powerful third of the tripartite alliance of altepetl – the Excan Tlatoloyan – which, at its height, controlled much of what is now central Mexico. The people who fell under the auspices of this ‘empire’ were part of distinct Indigenous communities who paid allegiance to the Excan Tlatoloyan, each with their own identity and history. Collectively referred to as Nahuas (with Nahuatl being the common language spoken across the empire), these societies shared many commonalities, including strong traditions of representing space and place.

    Long before Hernán Cortés and his retinue of Spanish conquistadores set foot on the eastern shore of central Mexico (present-day Vera Cruz) in 1519, Indigenous communities across Mesoamerica already had well-established traditions of producing written works that documented various aspects of their society, including maps.[ii]  These maps documented far more than place-names and basic spatial relationships; intricately detailed and created by skilled Indigenous workers called tlacuiloque (sl. tlacuilo, “one who writes or paints”[3]), these documents could contain a range of information, including genealogical histories, depictions of rulers, historical narratives, toponym glyphs, and much more. Unfortunately, the vast majority of these detailed records of Indigenous knowledge were destroyed during the Spanish conquest.

   Within two years of their first arrival at Tenochtitlan in November 1519, Cortés’ forces – vastly augmented as a result of alliances with other altepeme, including the neighbouring Tlaxcalans and the Totonacs on the east coast – sustained a series of failed assaults on Tenochtitlan-Tlatelolco, before ultimately prevailing over the defenders of the altepetl in August 1521. With the fall of this great altepetl, Cortés instated himself as governor and began the process of colonial reorganisation of territory. This imposition of Spanish systems in place of existing Indigenous institutions, the relocation of Indigenous communities, and the destruction of pre-conquest Indigenous documents, had profound implications across Mesoamerica.


    Despite this, many Indigenous traditions endured throughout and beyond Spanish rule. The work of tlacuilos, for example, came to be recognised as authoritative by the Spanish and was incorporated into the new systems of governance. Where Spanish authorities requested information from their subjects in the New World, Indigenous tlacuiloque continued to produce documents in their traditional styles.

The Spaniards had little choice but to accept the painted world of the Nahuas if they were to administer the land and people effectively. They accepted pictorials as evidence in litigations and petitions by seeing them as documents analogous to their own alphabetic records, although less efficient in their eyes.[4]

    As part of the Relaciones Geográficas de Nueva España, a series of questionnaires ordered by King Phillip II of Spain in 1577 (with the aim of amassing an array of information to serve the Crown’s interests), one question specifically requested that the recipient “Make a plan in color of the streets, plazas, and other significant features such as monasteries, as well as can be sketched easily on paper, indicating which part of the town faces south or north.”[5] Whilst the author of this questionnaire, Juan López de Velasco, would likely have expected to receive a completed questionnaire accompanied by a map in European style, he instead received a corpus of maps that reflected a mix of both European and Indigenous styles.


[ii] You can read more about these types of documents at the following online resource: Mesoamerican Pathways | Depicting Geographies

The map of Cempoala. Relaciones Geográficas de México y Guatemala, 1577-1585. Joaquín García Icazbalceta Manuscript Collection, University of Texas.

Figure 6: The map of Cempoala. Relaciones Geográficas de México y Guatemala, 1577-1585. Joaquín García Icazbalceta Manuscript Collection, University of Texas.

    Each of these pinturas (paintings) offers a unique reflection of sixteenth-century settlements in Mexico, composed in the context of a period that witnessed significant change and upheaval. Maps such as the one shown above, of Cempoala (currently Zempoala, Hidalgo), demonstrate this merging of traditions: Indigenous toponym glyphs (the most prominent on this map being Cempoala itself, oriented to the right) and depictions of key figures (both Indigenous rulers and Spanish) feature alongside European-style depictions of churches and red lines delineating areas associated with each altepetl. Maps such as these may have been produced to serve systems of Spanish governance but, by continuing to use their own representations of space and place, Indigenous tlacuilos ensured the preservation of these traditions. Maps produced during this period are still used by Indigenous communities today, legitimising land claims and holding ancestral knowledge. Signifiers of Indigenous settlements that were enveloped in the process of Mexico City’s expansion remain visible in the continued usage of toponym glyphs throughout Mexico City’s metro network, used as locational identifiers.[iii]


[iii] You can read more about the continuity of Indigenous toponym usage at the following online resource: Mesoamerican Pathways | Tracing Toponymy

Modern Map Making


The making of maps, and their use, has been revolutionised in recent years, with technological advances enabling new ways of representing and interacting with space. These innovative tools, however, should be treated with the same caution as their forerunners. The issues inherent within the map-making process remain, further compounded by the fact that it is possible to share these documents far more widely and without proper context. Furthermore, the increasing availability of seemingly ‘raw’ satellite and other scientific data serves to further the illusion of objectivity in map-making. This data, like any other, is just as easily manipulated in order to serve the intended narrative of the map.

GIS is layers’ promotional poster for GIS Day 2019

Figure 7: ‘GIS is layers’ promotional poster for GIS Day 2019 (ESRI, 2019)

   Geographic Information Sciences (GISc) are at the forefront of these advances. A Geographic Information System (GIS) is software that allows the capture, storage, analysis and display of spatial and geographic data. This data is analysed within a series of layers of information, stacked on top of one another, which create a representation of a given area. Initially created by and for environmental scientists in the 1960s, GIS has subsequently been adopted by geographers, archaeologists, historians, and many others, in order to answer questions about their own fields of study. GIS allows us to conduct powerful analyses that can tell us a great deal about geographic relationships, but it does have its limitations.

Figure 8: Interactive GIS map showing political entities of Mesoamerica up to 1520.

[Derived from: "Map H_II_2: Mapa Politico-Territorial de Mesoamerica hacia 1520", Atlas Nacional de México (Instituto de Geografía, UNAM, 2007), digitised by: 'Digging Into Early Colonial Mexico: A large-scale computational analysis of 16th-century historical sources' (2018)

     In order to conduct these powerful analyses, GIS software necessarily relies upon distinctly defined boundaries and locations, which ultimately boil down to a series of simple lines and points in order to make it understandable by a computer for the purpose of analysis. As a result, when using GIS, we inevitably make qualitative sacrifices in order to input and output quantitative data. This is particularly important for any GIS analysis for historical research. Reducing the complex reality of historical geographies risks simply re-imposing colonial views on space and place and once again overwriting Indigenous knowledge. The interactive map shown above depicts rough approximations of political-territorial boundaries in Mesoamerica up to 1520. While this can serve as a useful geographical reference – to visualise the extent of the Triple Alliance (Aztec Empire), for example – it fails to demonstrate the complex reality. The Triple Alliance, depicted as a contiguous polygon, could here be perceived as a homogenous empire when, in reality, it was composed of hundreds of distinct Indigenous societies who owed allegiance to the Triple Alliance but held their own identities and histories.

    GIS and computational methods alone cannot answer all the questions we have, nor should we expect them to do so. It is vital to be aware of these limitations, but there are many innovative ways of using GIS (and quantitative data) to accompany and complement qualitative analysis. Enabling the analysis of vast amounts of geographic information, combined with the complex questions raised when studying the past, has the potential to offer new insights and pose new questions. The issues associated with utilising GIS for historical research are unique neither to the study of history nor to our time. On the contrary, representations of space have always been subject to the decisions of their authors. It is the responsibility not only of map-makers, but of map-readers, too, to interrogate representations of space and place in order to more fully understand the worldviews inscribed upon the map.


[1] Mark Monmonier, How to Lie with Maps, (University of Chicago Press, 1996), 2.

[2] J. B. Harley, ‘Deconstructing the Map’, Cartographica 26, no. 2 (1989), 11.

[3] Frances Karttunen, An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), 261.

[4] Elizabeth Hill Boone, ‘Pictorial Documents and Visual Thinking in Postconquest Mexico’, in Native Traditions in the Postconquest World, A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks 2nd through 4th October 1992., by Elizabeth Hill Boone and Tom Cummins (Washington, D.C: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1998), 192.

[5] René Acuña, Relaciones Geográficas Del Siglo XVI, 10 vols (1st ed.), (Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto de Investigaciones Antropológicas, 1982-1988).

Katherine Bellamy is a PhD researcher at Lancaster University, currently investigating Indigenous representations of space, place, and landscape and their changes in Central Mexico between the Late Postclassic (1325-1521) and the Early Colonial period (1521-1585), with a particular focus on the geopolitical unit called the altepetl. Her broader research incorporates the use of Digital Humanities methods, especially in relation to historical geographies and the digitization of spatial information in Geographic Information Systems (GIS) for the aggregation and analysis of archaeological, historical and geographic data.

Twitter: @kbellamy_

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