Twenty-two years ago, a map was born

Three years into my graduate school experience at Ohio State, this student of History went out on a limb and took Geography 580: Cartography. I recall that the professor was a bit of an eccentric tyrant – he’d berate students for chewing gum, and even made one male student take his ball cap off in the classroom. While I enjoyed the subject, the detail was, at times, a bit too much: I ended up getting a B+ in the course because even though I was able to trace a map of Australia into a CAD program via a digitizing tablet and puck, I refused to memorize the details of additive color systems and printing processes (this was 1995, after all). While my interest in mapping Australia’s population evaporated at the end of the semester, I retained the fascination with mapping. So much so that I forged ahead in creating my own maps for research, even as I knew that there was more to mapping than AutoCAD and, later, Adobe Illustrator. Though I will admit to spending several hundreds dollars in order to purchase a royalty-free vector map of Europe.

And now, some twenty-two years later, I’ve finally accomplished at least part of what I’d set out to do those many years ago. After about ten days of intermittently playing around with QGIS (free, open-source Geographical Information System software), I finally have a passable first draft of a map I’ll use for my upcoming Crusades course. Drum roll please:

 

Screenshot 2017-08-23 15.19.50.png

First I downloaded Natural Earth base-maps. Second step was to create a list of significant towns, look up their coordinates and import them into QGIS, and then set up rule-based formatting to display the major cities in a larger, upper-case font (and a larger, square icon). Next, I scanned and georeferenced one of the maps from Nicolle’s Atlas of the Islamic World, then traced the (approximate) boundaries of Christian and Muslim states as polygons (snapping to adjacent polygons to avoid slivers) while keeping a wide berth of the coasts, before finally clipping the polygon layers to the coastline layer.

Not too bad, though the georeferencing goes awry once we reach the Baltic – but that’s why you only rely on the georeferenced map for the borders, and not the cities or coastlines. The labels need tweaking (both font style and positioning), and of course it lacks all the info expected of a professional map: scale, title, key, etc. But it’s good enough for showing in class (once I add a scale), and, what’s more, it will serve as the basis for tracing territorial changes over the various Crusades.

A more basic base-map that I can use for note taking (in Notability on my new iPad Pro 12.9″) looks like this, with a jaunty little rotation added for good measure:

Crusades basemap.png

Practicing with maps of the Crusades this semester will prepare me for even more fun next semester, when I teach my European Warfare, 1337-1815 course again. So I’ll finally be able to combine my crazy timecharts with ‘bespoke’ maps. After that, hopefully, a year-long sabbatical when I’ll be able to trace military operations in Flanders over the course of the War of the Spanish Succession in gory GIS detail. But I’ve gotta pace myself. There’s still a battle book to be written.

Took me long enough.

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2 responses to “Twenty-two years ago, a map was born”

  1. jostwald says :

    Nota bene: for some reason, you need to save your new clipped *layer* as a separate layer file (e.g. ESRI shapefile). On my MacBookPro, I get an error when I try to save it to the default top level (Macintosh HD), so I need to give the layer a new name and then drill down to an appropriate folder before saving it. Just saving the *project* itself isn’t enough – the next time you open the project, you’ll see the clipped layer in the Layers Panel, but it won’t have saved the polygon features for whatever reason (i.e. there’ll be a blank attribute table). You can verify your layer is saved (before closing the project) by looking at the Layer Source path in the Layer Properties-General window: it should list an actual path instead of “MultiPolygons…string…blah blah blah’.

  2. jostwald says :

    Or, I could just use the Snapping Options-Advanced-Avoid Intersections for polygon layers and avoid the hassle of the Vector-Geoprocessing-Clip plugin. Computers give us so many ways to do the same thing!

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