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450-year old map highlights role of women as map colourists

A map from the world’s first atlas, produced in 1570, offers a window not only into the geography of the time, but a chance to learn about a pioneering female colourist and the many others who have made indelible contributions to cartography ever since.

maddy moss

The map, which depicts the surrounding areas of Milan, Spain, some 450 years ago, will be on display at Okanagan College’s Library for International Women’s day until March 8.

It’s on loan from the private collection of Geography Professor Terence Day, who posits that it was almost certainly coloured by Anna Ortel, sister of Abraham Ortel (or Ortelius), the producer of the atlas.

“What is particularly interesting about this map is the way in which it is coloured,” notes Day.

“Anna Ortel coloured it by hand using four colours – red, blue, yellow and green. This is in accordance with the four-colour theorem that says no more than four colours are required to colour a map to avoid having adjacent regions in the same colour. The mathematical proof for this didn’t come until 1976 but Anna Ortel was apparently aware of this more than four hundred years ago.”

And while the colours may have darkened with age, as Day notes, the map still provides a vibrant and intriguing example of the role women played as map colourists in the 16th and 17th centuries.

For Day, who teaches classes on cartography, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and remote sensing, the map is also a way of illustrating for students the integral role that women play in cartography to this day.

“An example can be found in Cynthia Brewer of Penn State University, who has an online colour brewer to assist the design of map colouring,” notes Day. “But you need not look that far. In fact, you need not look beyond the environs of Okanagan College to find brilliant students and faculty members who are advancing the discipline.”

Maddy Moss is one of those women re-drawing the lines on the map. And in her case, she hopes to colour them in in a way that makes the world a little greener.

Moss, who hails from the Okanagan, will graduate from the College’s Environmental Management diploma later this spring. In the meantime, she’s absorbing as much knowledge as she can to help her land a career in urban planning.

“Before I came to the College I didn’t realize there were so many aspects of geography. I love thinking about the spatial links in our society, our cities – how we organize where we live, work and play, and how it relates to the ground we live on.”

Adds Moss: “I’d love to be able to working city planning, helping to make our cities more sustainable, more eco-friendly.”

In lead up to International Women’s Day on Sunday, Okanagan College will be recognizing and celebrating the remarkable achievements and contributions to the region made by OC students, employees, retirees, alumni, donors, industry and community partners in a variety of ways. Follow along on social media on Sunday and on