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Cartographic Connections: Anatomy of a Map

Anatomy of a Map

Maps often consist of a combination of words and images that work together to help us to locate, and to better understand, places. Most of the maps featured on our Cartographic Connections web site have several key parts or elements. Learning about them can help you to better read the maps on this web site.

Mapped area - The first part of the map that may catch your attention is the geographic subject of the map itself, or mapped area (such as Texas or the North American continent). 

 Inset - Some maps actually feature not only this mapped area, but may also contain an  inset (or insets) showing an enlargement of some important area, such as a harbor, battlefield, or city. 

Cartouche - Many maps have a cartouche, a sometimes elaborate feature that contains the title of the map, name of the cartographer and/or sponsor, and publication information such as the date and place of publication. The cartouche may also contain other graphic designs, such as landscape images or illustrations of people, animals, plants, etc.

Commentaries - Maps may also include written commentaries that describe aspects of the history, geography, or politics.

Compass Rose - Maps usually have a compass rose or some other symbol, such as an arrow, that helps orient the map user to direction: Usually, but not always, north is at the top of the map. 

Legend - Maps usually have a legend that explains the symbols used for example, rivers as blue lines or railroads as lines with cross markings. 

Scale - Maps usually also have a scale that shows common measurements, such as miles or kilometers in reference to the map. Sometimes they also indicate this as a ratio, as when they say that the map is drawn at 1:20,000 scale, meaning that one unit on the map (say, an inch) equals 20,000 of those same units (again, inches) in real life. 

Coordinates - Maps may contain coordinates, marked along the borders, that are usually shown as measurements of latitude and longitude: These help the map user know where the area is in terms of the equator and other points east or west of another main point, such as London or Washington. 

Neatline - As they finish their maps, cartographers often frame them with a border called a neatline. All of the parts mentioned above tend to vary through time as cartographers use different styles, for example, elaborate neatlines in the seventeenth century. 


Because a map may not actually have a date written on it, all of the parts mentioned above can be used as clues to help cartographic historians determine when the map was produced.

For more information on the design and structure of maps, see:

Greenhood, David. Mapping (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1964).
Manasek, S. J., Collecting Old Maps (Norwich, Vt: Terra Nova Press, 1998).
Robinson, Arthur, et. al., Elements of Cartography 6th edition (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1995).