Driftwood Cartography


As a source of information, a map is always a way of groping through the darkness of the unknown. But locating yourself in space has never been cartography’s sole function: like these driftwood pieces, maps inevitably chart how cultures perceive not only their landscapes but their lives. (Guardian)

How did other indigenous islanders map their lives?

Teachers, scroll down for a quick list of key resources in our Teachers Toolkit.

These three wooden maps depict an explorer’s journey along the Greenland coast. The caption reads: “Kuniit’s three wooden (tree) maps show the journey from Sermiligaaq to Kangertittivatsiaq. Map to the right shows the islands along the coast, while the map in the middle shows the mainland and is read from one side of the block around to the other. Map to the left shows the peninsula between the fjords Sermiligaaq and Kangertivartikajik.”
Map from Topografisk Atlas Grønland, published by Det Kongeglige Danske Geografiske Selskab, 2000 (pg 171).

Discussion Ideas

  • Some Greenlandic cultures were carving driftwood into beautiful, fascinating maps of their icy coastline centuries before GIS, GPS, or even written language. Why does the Greenland coast remain so challenging for navigators that it is nicknamed the “Forbidden Coast”?
    • The Atlantic Ocean and glacial landscape are formidable for any vessel. According to the Guardian, “the mountains rise almost vertically from the sea to form a narrow bulwark, with rifts through which active glaciers discharge quantities of ice, while numerous off-lying islets and rocks make navigation hazardous … ‘Where the glaciers have disappeared,’ explains [one explorer and sea captain], pointing at washes of green on a creased, hand-drawn chart, ‘a peninsula turns out to be an island. It was actually sea where you thought there was land.’”


  • Cartographers say the gorgeous, enigmatic Inuit driftwood maps are 3D variations of “straight line diagrams” or “strip maps.” What are straight line diagrams?
    • A straight line diagram is a very stylized road map of a single road or set of roads. As the name indicates, the road is shown as a straight line. Highway and subway maps are versions of straight line diagrams. The “road” on the straight-line-diagram driftwood maps is the Greenlandic coastline itself.
      • According to the good folks at Esri, contemporary “[s]traight line diagrams have two primary purposes. The first purpose is data production … By creating a straight line diagram, each aspect of the data appears as a separate line, which allows easy access to the information for editing. The second purpose is for creating a hard-copy map book where each page displays a different route or section of a route.”


  • How do navigators and explorers read the Greenlandic driftwood maps? How do concepts represented in these maps differ from familiar ideas in Western cartography?
    • The driftwood maps really make no use of cardinal directions. They are made to be read in a continuous loop, up one side and down the other. This makes the maps less a depiction of a region than a document of a journey.
    • In Greenlandic driftwood maps, the carved wood is the ocean, while empty space is land. (Holes are islands, for instance.) This makes the maps mirror images of the coastline, not the coastline itself.


  • How are the driftwood maps ideally adapted for Greenland’s Arctic ocean navigators?
    • The carved maps can be read just as easily in the dark as the light. This is crucial for a region that can experience nearly 24 hours of darkness in the winter.
    • The maps are hand-held, making them easily transported and convenient for consulting while in a kayak.
    • As one cartographer notes, the size and readability also make excellent use of space. There are no big regions that would indicate the size of the terrestrial interior but offer little value to the coastal navigator.
    • The carved driftwood is hardy and buoyant, able to withstand ice, water—and icy water.
    • Notches in the wood indicate where a kayak can be carried between fjords blocked by ice.


  • Take a look at a beautiful Marshallese stick chart, produced by another island culture in another ocean and another climate. What do the driftwood map and stick charts have in common?
    • Both maps, produced by island cultures, show the primacy of the ocean. Ocean features, such as currents and fjords, are prioritized over terrestrial features such as mountains and canyons.
    • Both maps are able to account for changing natural phenomena, such as currents or the presence of pack ice.
    • Both maps use local natural resources—driftwood, shells, coconut fibers—making production relatively easy.
    • Both maps are hand-held, made for easy transport.
    • Perhaps most importantly, both maps are entirely individualized and not intended for universal navigation.
      • According to our study guide, “stick charts were not used for navigation in the way we use maps or charts today. In fact, the Marshallese probably did not consult stick charts on their long journeys throughout the Marshall Islands and Micronesia. Navigators memorized the chart before the journey was made. Charts were highly individualized. Sometimes, a stick chart could only be read by the person who made it!”


  • Create your own tactile map!
    • Choose a story. The Inuit maps told the stories of coastal journeys, while the Marshallese maps depicted voyages on the open ocean. What journey will your map depict? How does your map help you tell your story? Is it a mnemonic device? Is it a visual aid for a presentation?
    • Choose what to represent. Knowing the journey you want to map will help you here. What are the best waypoints to represent the journey? Streets? Trees or greenways? Winds? Construction sites?
    • Choose a medium. Clay or Play-Doh? Wood? Papier-mâché?



Guardian: Faultlines, black holes and glaciers: mapping uncharted territories

Nat Geo: Marshallese Stick Chart study guide

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