The Treachery of Maps


By Bob Bagley and Roo Angell (Sayres Court)

“Maps are neither mirrors of nature nor neutral transmitters of universal truths. They are narratives with a purpose, stories with an agenda. They contain silences as well as articulations, secrets as well as knowledge, lies as well as truth. They are biased, partial, and selective.” (1)


Archaeology and Vegetation at Sayes Court, 2015 (not to scale). B.Bagley

The 1980 play by Brian Friel, Translations, examines the attempts by a group of Royal Engineer cartographers to map the whole of Ireland between 1824 and 1846. At a scale of 6 inches to a mile, this pioneering undertaking resulted in 1,939 individual sheets and made Ireland the first country to be recorded in this comprehensive and detailed way.

Friel presents mapping, or the act of mapping as a violent and destructive political act, a volley of artillery fire to the face of cultural identity and self-perception. Place-names are anglicised (Baile Beag to Ballybeg), boundaries redrawn and language eroded by an “Ordinance Survey” which, as one protagonist describes, was robbing them of a mother tongue “full of the mythologies of fantasy and hope and self-deception”.

Maps once drawn begin to define us. Whilst the viewer brings their own cultural codes to give the map meaning, these “codes” rarely survive the experience intact. Mapping may “tie down” a site but makes us lazy. We mistake the metaphor for the real.

John Evelyn’s transposed 1623 map of Deptford (fig.2) centres around the thriving riparian town running along the Thames’ edge (which was at that time “near as big as Bristol”). Orientated roughly along an east-west axis, it underlines the main topographical feature of the Thames as the major highway, whilst…

(1) John Rennie Short, The World Through Maps: A History of Cartography (Firefly Books, 2003)


screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-15-31-45(Fig. 2) Extract of A Map of Deptford, 1623. From an Original Pen and Ink Sketch with additional remarks by John Evelyn, ESQ.R, Britsh Library


(Fig. 3) LiDAR image showing the archaeological excavations about the Smithy, Clerk of the Cheque’s House and Great Basin, and the resultant soil heaps. Convoys Wharf, 2011 (Open Government Licence)

the oblique perspective proudly serves to better illustrate the scale and density of the buildings. It shows the three main watergates (upper, middle and lower, the use of each dependent on the appropriate tide), and the lanes reaching out towards the Dover Road. The major industries and therefore major land holders are shown, The King’s Yard (Deptford Dockyard), the yards of the East India Company and the hall and associated almshouses belonging to the Corporation of Trinity House (of Deptford Stronde) and naturally, the manor house and gardens of Sayes Court.

It is the Deptford that Chaucer, Raleigh and Marlowe would have all recognised and is by and large a representation of personal, collective and historic consciousness. It is at once, humane, local, of its own logic and with Evelyn’s notes, self-referential.

Current trends such as the democratic distribution of survey data through open source platforms (fig.3), and the general increase in access to digital maps via mobile devices seem to perhaps offer a new kind of “social” mapping, freeing us from the tyrannical grip of the patron-cartographer-viewer trichotomy.

Yet the drive to ever further map our reality through geo-located photographs and associated social-media related reviews seems to, in fact, tend towards a collective narrowing of perception and opinion. We have become saturated with data and in response we accept the shorthand for the painstaking discovery and the reductive for the myriad complexity.

In face of this narrowing of behaviors and conformity of action, the answer perhaps best lies with Lewis Carroll, who In Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, describes a fictional map that boasts “the scale of a mile to the mile”. Noting the cumbersome nature of such a map, a character concedes that “we now use the country itself, as its own map, and I assure you it does nearly as well.”

A murder of crows over Sayes Court, 2015. B. Bagley