The word “map” comes from the medieval Latin Mappa mundi, wherein mappa meant napkin or cloth and mundi the world. Thus, “map” became the shortened term referring to a two-dimensional representation of the surface of the world.”
This seemingly straightforward statement represents a conventional view of maps. From this perspective, maps can be seen as mirrors of reality. The idea of a map as a mirror image makes maps appear to be ideal tools for understanding the reality of places at different points in time. A map is an image of a place at a particular point in time, but that place has been intentionally reduced in size. Map contents have been selectively condensed to focus on one or two particular items. The results of this reduction and distillation are then encoded into a symbolic representation of the place. Finally, this fixed, symbolic image of a place has to be decoded and understood by a map reader who may live in a different time period and culture. Along the way from reality to reader, maps may lose some or all of their reflective capacity or the image may become blurred.
So, what is a map? A map is text. John Pickles, a geographer with interests in social power and maps, suggests: maps have the character of being textual in that they have words associated with them, that they employ a system of symbols within their own syntax, that they function as a form of writing (inscription), and that they are discursively embedded within broader contexts of social action and power.
In this view, maps are a form of symbolization, governed by a set of conventions, that aim to communicate a sense of place. To fully understand a map, we need to know how to decode its message and place it within its proper spatial, chronological, and cultural contexts. Maps, even modern maps, are historic. They represent a particular place at a particular point in time. This definition of a map (although, like the mirror image idea, is also problematic) suggests that maps can afford the viewer a great opportunity to gain insights into the nature of places.