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A Cartographer’s Den - the New Welsh Review Blog


NWR Issue 109Nathan Munday

A Cartographer’s Den

There is a new cartographer’s den at the National Museum Cardiff. Maps, fossils and more maps fill its new exhibition on the second floor. Go upstairs via the café, pass the statue and then the row of porcelain-filled cabinets before walking around the edge until you reach the room labelled: ‘Reading the Rocks: the Remarkable Maps of William Smith’.

I had never heard of William Smith or done much rock reading either….

But I have always liked maps. Handmade, coffee- stained treasure maps all the way down to those pink and orange OS charts, made my childhood an extremely ‘mappy’ one. My father is a Munro-bagger and maps were always inconveniently laid out across our floor or on the kitchen table!

Anyway, back to the museum. As you walk in, you’ll notice the colours and a dominating central piece hoisted up in the middle of the room. This is Smith’s monumental work of 1815, A Delineation of the Strata of England and Wales, with part of Scotland. Onions have layers but so does Britain! The different colours emphasise the different rock layers, or strata, that form these islands. Smith spent fifteen years mapping 175,000 km2 of Britain in all sorts of conditions; he was creating the first geological map of any country. How did he do it? He identified the rock layers by what fossils slept in the strata. What resulted? A treasure map! The industrialists now knew where all the coal, iron and other raw materials were hiding.

The second thing you’ll probably do as you enter that room is zoom-in to the map and look for your own village or town. In my case, it was Carmel in the middle of Carmarthenshire. The bluish, red colours pinpoint Carmel on the edge of the south Wales coalfield. The maps are charged with history. The big map celebrates its birthday this year, and initially, I thought it would have been good to hear a little bit more about 1815 and the stories and events that occurred above those rocky layers. However, the purpose of the exhibition is to present the maps themselves – the rest can be left to our imaginations (and the lectures on geology and the natural sciences that tie in with the exhibition, see below).

The exhibition is interdisciplinary and its appeal is wide-reaching. I spent a few minutes on my knees with an old man and his grandchildren playing with a puzzle aimed at children (and students!) This jigsaw showed how the ‘strata of southern Britain always occur in a regular order and are all tilted in the same direction.’ I didn’t know this! The maps are beautiful pieces of art in themselves and the various talks and family events will further emphasise their importance.

Smith was a geological trailblazer and I wondered how he would have reacted to an exhibition like this. He would have been proud of seeing his work. But maybe, like me, he would have liked to have seen a couple of digital screens showing the evolution of geological cartography since 1815.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed my time at the museum. I am looking forward to an event on 23 November, held at Cardiff University, where the Cardiff Romanticism and Eighteenth-century Seminar (CRECS) will discuss ‘Reading the Rocks’. There is also a day of lectures taking place in the National Museum on 27 of November entitled ‘Layered Landscapes: Geology and Travel in Romantic-Era Britain’ (see below) and featuring New Welsh Review contributor Mary-Ann Constantine and others. I am going to both events.

The academics are interested – that is no bad thing. The exhibition has also managed to capture the interest of a young boy who would probably have taken that Strata Puzzle home with him if the guard and his grandfather had allowed him.

Nathan Llywelyn Munday is a PhD candidate at Cardiff University.

‘Reading the Rocks, the Remarkable Maps of William Smith’ runs at the National Museum Cardiff until 28 February 2016. The tie-in lectures are on 25 November, lunchtime free event and 27 November, day event, £19, £5 concession at the museum


previous blog: Still Life, Aberystwyth Arts Centre
next blog: ‘“The Secret Workings of Nature”: Robert Hooke and Early Science’, National Library of Wales


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