A map is a reduced representation of three-dimensional space. Since a map is a limited representation, it's impossible to accurately convey all proportions and features of the depicted area. To overcome these limitations, maps have a system of symbols to explain objects, features, distances and characteristics. Map symbols make it possible for people to understand the map and use the information to meet their needs.
The first maps date to 1500 B.C. Early maps were painted on cave walls and were used by early agricultural societies to protect and manage their crop boundaries. The cave maps used a series of symbols to indicate farm boundaries and show the location of livestock.
With the rise of the Babylonian Empire in 600 B.C., maps became more complex. During this time, maps had to do more than just show farms. As the Babylonian Empire grew, cities and bridges were built across the land. New map symbols were created to indicate man-made structures.
As maps became more complicated, the symbols became more complicated. The Babylonians realized they needed a way to define all of the new map symbols. They created map legends and placed them on the back of all their maps. The map legends explained the map symbols in writing and made it possible for anyone to read the map. Today, map legends can be found on the front of any map.
Standard map symbols indicate three main features on maps. These features include areas, lines and points. Area symbols indicate country boundaries, lakes, parks, soil parcels and wildlife distribution. Line symbols represent rivers, roads and railway lines. Point symbols show the tops of mountains and indicate the locations of man-made structures.
Map symbols consist of lines, letters and graphics. The symbols can be anything from a dot to a more complex illustration. Map features and symbols vary somewhat based on the type of map. Every map has a legend that provides a key for the symbols.
A map without symbols is a useless tool. Symbols provide important information on distances, geography and locations. Maps are extremely limited in what they can represent. Symbols are necessary to convey the information maps provide.
Maps will continue to grow and change along with our culture. As technology improves, so will our ability to draw maps. One day, we may be able to accurately portray the size and scope of our environment on a map. Until then, we need map symbols to help us find our way.
- The Map Book; Peter Barber; 2005
- Be Expert with Map and Compass: The Complete Orienteering Handbook; Bjorn Kjellstrom; 1994
- Map Reading and Land Navigation; The Department of Defense; 1999