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Cartographic Treasures at Harvard

A large landmass inked in black swoops up the center of a fragile map drafted over 400 years ago. Groups of huddled hills represent mountains, small tufts of grass symbolize plains, and the squiggly east and west coasts, which funnel down into a cone, just barely resemble the outline of the United States. This delicate piece of paper, dated 1566, is the first known map of North America and includes early place names for Florida and Canada. It is part of "Cartographic Treasures at Harvard," an exhibition continuing through September 30.

Maps dating from as early as the 16th century, globes documenting places as far away as the stars, atlases, and scientific instruments compose the exhibition, housed in both Houghton Library and the Harvard Map Collection in Pusey Library. Drawing on the holdings of the Harvard Map Collection, the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments, and Houghton's Liechtenstein Collection, the exhibition features items from across Harvard brought together for the first time.

Organized geographically, the exhibition begins with the Americas, then moves across the Atlantic to Europe and Asia. Of particular note is an East Asian map of the 19th century that includes an inscription reading, "Country of Night, belonging to Tartary, extends to the Arctic Sea. Grain does not grow here, and it is covered with snow and ice even in summer." Also of interest is a drawing overlaid in yellow and red watercolor by an anonymous witness to the 1738 siege of Kandahar, Afghanistan, depicting new palaces built south of the river for the new ruler, Nader Shah.

David Cobb, New England historical map authority and head of HCL's Harvard Map Collection, noted, "This marks the first time that many of these maps have been gathered for public viewing. The exhibit reveals Harvard's exceptional cartographic holdings for New England, as well as manuscripts and unique prints from around the globe."

The exhibition was mounted in conjunction with the 20th International Conference on the History of Cartography that was held in June. For more information, call 5-2417.

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Last modified on Wednesday, July 23, 2003.