Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below

December 2, 2017

To you, an educated person living in 2017, it may seem obvious that the world beneath your feet consists of rock, rock, and more rock, some molten rock, then a bunch of hot iron and nickel down at the core. But long before eighth grade Earth science classes existed to share this worldview, people were trying to envision what our (definitely round) world looks like beneath its skin.
As a fascinating map exhibition shows, there was no shortage of creativity involved.

Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below features a wide array of maps created by cartographers, thinkers, and scientists over the last 400 years, with a focus on the 19th and early 20th centuries. The collection, which is housed at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library, offers a window into how our view of Earth’s interior has changed with the times—from a spiritual underground to a source of minerals and fuels that ushered in the modern era.

“The 19th century was a time that map makers started to focus on particular singular topics [like geology] and trying to map them,” curator Ron Grim told Earther. “The thing we’re trying to get across to a larger audience is the variety of maps being produced, and how our understanding of the Earth has changed.”

Indeed, as the exhibit shows, it’s changed dramatically. A page from a geologic textbook published in 1830 offers one of the first modern(-ish) depictions of Earth as planet with concentric layers and hot, “combustible” materials in the interior, which helped form the world’s major mountain ranges.

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