Old Maps Online: mapping sites and siting maps

After my recent deep dive into Toyo Bunko, in this post I will talk about another great digital tool for those who are interested in Central Asia and digital cartography – a topic dear to us here at the Digital Orientalist.

I came across Old Maps Online in 2016, right after my MA in Chinese Studies, as I was embarking on a year-long research trip to China. At that time I knew already that I wanted to study the relationship between Buddhist art and landscape – and I soon realized that I needed to become more familiar with maps and mapping. Specifically, I realized the importance of digital tools that would make it easier for me to compare current satellite-based maps with historical ones. That’s when I found Old Maps Online.

Old Maps Online is first and foremost a repository for historical maps; there are almost 500,000 maps indexed on the website from more than 50 important institutions around the world, and both from public and private collections – among them, the British Library, Leiden University, the Harvard Library, the Royal Library of Belgium, and the David Rumsey map collection. The project, as stated here, “developed out of a love of history and heritage of old maps […] as a collaboration between Klokan Technologies GmbH, Switzerland and the Great Britain Historical GIS Project based at the University of Portsmouth, UK. […] Since January 2013 [it’s] improved and maintained by volunteers and the team of Klokan Technologies GmbH in their free time.” The team can be contacted at info@oldmapsonline.org – they are always looking for new opportunities to expand the project and improve the website! (Especially if you have a collection of maps you want to upload to the website that meets these requirements, do contact them). 

So how does Old Maps Online work and how is it useful, beyond the repository aspect of the website?

From the homepage there are two main ways of engaging with the maps. You can browse the collection of maps directly, or search for a specific place and all the maps related to that place. In the first case, you can look through all the maps by region of the world, by zooming in an area in the interactive map provided by the website. In the second case, you can input the name of a town, a region, or a known geographical feature and the search engine will show the location on a current map on the left of the screen. In both cases, the Timeline search tool right next to the search box can be used to hone in the search, and find maps that were produced within a specific date range.

The two search buttons on the homepage.

The timeline feature on the right of the searchbox

Let’s see how the search works with an example. When I input “Mingora,” a town in Swat, Pakistan, the database returns me the location of the city on the map on the left, while the list on the right collects all the historical maps where Mingora is featured–-the site also matches the current name with historical names of the place. If someone is interested in the archaeology of the region, like me, they can search for any maps showing archaeological sites by scrolling down the list. In this case, we are lucky: the first map is a 1926 map by archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein (1862-1943) showing the sites he mapped during his tour of the region. By clicking on the map, we can choose to view it directly on the original website (hosted by the British Library) or view it as an overlay on a modern interactive map. In this latter case, a new page will open in the BL Georeferencer, where you can zoom in and out, change the background map to satellite view and thus be able to see the current geographical features of the territory, and make the overlaid map more or less transparent to see how much the land has changed in the intervening years between when it was made and the current configuration. 

Stein’s 1926 map overlaid on a current satellite map of Swat. The names in red are the archaeological sites he mapped during his exploration of the region.

And that is one of the greatest features: many of the maps on the site are geo-referenced, and the degree of accuracy is quite good. For example, if we look at Stein’s map once again and we focus on where he located the Buddhist site of Gumbatuna, we see that the overlap with the modern map is almost perfect. Using this feature, one could reasonably be able to identify the current location of some relatively unknown sites that were signaled on these historical maps but that have either disappeared or have passed under the radar and pin them on Google Earth Pro. In the past, I have georeferenced maps on my own – with a reasonable degree of accuracy for a dilettante – using online tools such as Map Warper (an open source map georectifier and image georeferenced tool) – but the work already there on Old Maps Online done with Georeferencer is definitely more accessible.

The location of the stupa of Gumbatuna matches almost exactly the Stein’s 1926 map.

The Gumbatuna stupa.

Perhaps the greatest flaw of the site is the lack of consistency in the quality of the maps, which is not a demerit of Old Maps Online itself, because as a repository the website relies on the quality of the scans uploaded on the original digital collections. Additionally, not all maps are georeferenced and it can be a pain to georeference them on your own, either with ArcGIS or other free access digital tools, or create suitable files (e.g. KLM file) to import on other softwares such as Google Earth Pro. But for such a humongous collection, the team at Old Maps online is doing a marvelous job. If you want to help, don’t hesitate to reach out to them at info@oldmapsonline.org.

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