Category Archives: Geography

Clay on the Western front, a German viewpoint

Geological maps are an important part of cartography. Showing underlying soils and rock formations they have been used to illustrate papers in geology, in helping the planning and construction of canals, railways and other structures and in the extraction of minerals from the earth. Their use in times of war is less obvious, though no less important, as the following map shows.

The map is one of a series produced by the German 4th Army in July of 1918, a crucial time in the latter stages of the war. Peace negotiations with the new Soviet Government in Russia released a large number of German forces to the Western Front, strengthening plans to launch a series of attacks before the arrival of American forces. Initially successful – at one point German forces were within 40 miles of Paris – counter-attacks by Allied troops soon stopped and then re-captured German gains.

In this map from Harmsworth’s Atlas of the World (c1922, 2027 c.225) the German advances made in March 1918 can be seen. The thick blue line is the front-line before March, the  green lines show the advances made by the German army from March 1918 and finally the thick red line is the front-line at the Armistice in November.

The front page of the evening edition of the Pall Mall Gazette on the day the German attack was launched. 21st March, 1918. N 2288 b.4.

This geological map shows a cause for one of the  defining features of the War, mud. The areas of grey that start to appear in the bottom right of the map are the beginnings of the clay beds (ton in German) that would lie a metre or so under the surface throughout the Flanders battle grounds. These clay beds stopped any water seeping into the ground and the intricate system of dykes and drainage channels that controlled the flow of water in peace time had long-since been destroyed by the millions of shells fired over the area. The map states in the bottom left ‘Soil easy to handle; stable only in dry weather. After precipitation the water is kept close to the surface. Funnels fill up quickly with water (Boden leicht bearbeitbar…’.

Kriegsgeologische karte von Nord=Frankreich, Blatt Dünkirchen, 1918. C1:3 (295)


Volcanoes, an exciting new exhibition, has opened in Blackwell Hall. Amongst the many treasures featured are a number of maps, including early portolans. These images come from ‘The Physical Atlas of Natural Phaenomena’,  published in Edinburgh in 1849 by William Blackwood & Sons.

The atlas is split up into four sections covering Geology, Hydrology, Meteorology and Natural history and has text, charts and pictures as well as maps, and is made with ‘the co-operation of men eminent in the different departments of science’.

The Physical Atlas, a series of maps illustrating the Geological distribution of Natural Phenomena…1849. William Blackwood & Sons. Allen LRO 393

Kaart van Java en Madura. Published in Breda by A.J. Bogaerts, 1850

This map shows the Sunda Strait and the islands of Krakatoa, which exploded in spectacular fashion in 1883 with a bang that is considered to be the loudest sound in modern times. Barographs in various locations recorded shock waves from the explosion that travelled around the world seven times and the last remaining ripples of a number of large tsunami’s that devastated the surrounding population and coastline were recorded as far away the English Channel.

Sicilia, c1700. (E) C25:26 (23)

Finally a map of Sicily from circa 1700 which not only shows a smoking Mount Etna on the map but has, in a vignette in the corner, Vulcan, God of Fire, working at his forge inside the volcano.

More details about the exhibition can be found here


(Take me back to) The Black Hills of Dakota

Geological maps are often amongst the most colourful of all the cartographic genres, with the majority using a wide range of colours to show the land beneath our feet. One of the first recognized geological maps produced in this way was William Smith’s celebrated map of England and Wales, from 1815, featured in an earlier entry in this blog, . Towards the end of the Nineteenth Century the Ordnance Survey  started to produce detailed, and often beautiful,  geological maps of Britain and Ireland, something which continues to this day with the British Geological Survey (

This map of the Black Hills of South Dakota is a variation on the usual method of geological representation. The publishers, the United States Geographical and Geological Survey of the Rocky Mountain, Region, have used four different symbols of birds in flight to show the underlying


Bird’s eye view of the Black Hills…1879. F6:49 (12)

geology of the region.  A lack of any compass directions, text or scale on the map leaves a confused view of a complicated geological area. The Black Hills region has been dated back as far as 1.8 billion years, and was formed by magma deposits released during the movement of tectonic plates during the event known as the Trans-Hudson Orogeny (orogeny is a term used to describe geological events that cause major changes in the appearance of the Earth due to tectonic movement). The dramatic rings around the main area are caused by anticlines surrounding a dome (an anticline is a geological fold where strata are pushed together).


The Black Hills has a history as complex as its geology. Long been a site of spiritual importance the Hills took on a political significance after treaties giving the lands in perpetuity to the Lakota Indians in 1868 were ignored with the discovery of gold in 1874, and with defeat in the Great Sioux wars in 1876 the tribes were forcibly moved to reservations outside of the Black Hills area. A ruling in the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 stated that the relocation of the tribe was illegal, and that the Lakota were entitled to compensation, something which the Lakota refuse to accept as they believe that the only acceptable outcome is the return of the Black Hills. Mount Rushmore is on the eastern edge of the Black Hills and just across the border into Wyoming is the Devil’s Tower National Monument, created in 1906 and the first National Monument in the United States.


At the top of the map, just off the scan shown here, is the text ‘Dept. of the Interior, U.S.G and G. Survey, J.W. Powell in charge’. The U.S. G. and G. is the United States Geographical and Geological Survey, now called the U.S. Geological Survey and still producing maps to this day. J.W. Powell was an important figure in both the surveying and the exploration of the American West. John Wesley Powell was the second director of the U.S. Geological Survey but is remembered more for leading expeditions down the Colorado and Green Rivers, culminating in the first navigation through the Grand Canyon. A journey even more impressive considering that Powell had lost an arm during the Battle of Shiloh in 1862.


The area of the Black Hills, hard up against the border with Wyoming, shown on a more conventional geological map. The main part of the hill is schists (speckled brown) and granite (brown) surrounded by a ring of sandstone (light blue) and limestone (darker blue).This band of sandstone and limestone corresponds with the flat plateau of the western part of the raised dome in the earlier map.

Geological map of South Dakota, 1951. F6:49 (6).