A map of a British city in AD200: Archaeologists plot ancient York based on 19th century plan

By Culture24 Reporter | Updated: 10 February 2016

An atlas which has taken 43 years to compile has created a view of how York might have looked more than 1,800 years ago

A photo of a man holding up a print-out showing a modern and ancient map of a city
Dr Peter Addyman compares maps of York from AD200 and 1836© YAT
In 1972, the York Archaeological Trust began to create a historic atlas of the area. Their meticulous work was partly in response to an international post-war scheme creating scale historical maps of all of Europe’s historic towns.

But thanks to an extremely detailed, much earlier plan of the city, produced in 1852 and plotting York at the vast scale of five feet to every statute mile, the team and a group of cartographers have been able to redraw precise areas of the city – portraying how it would have looked from AD 200 to the time of the Industrial Revolution and beyond.

A photo of a man holding up a print-out showing a modern and ancient map of a city
The International Commission for Historic Towns ordered atlas base maps to be on a scale of 1:5000. York's map was much more precise at 1:1056© YAT
“Each of these maps poses immediate questions and challenges for historians and archaeologists,” says Dr Peter Addyman, the key middle man between the York Archaeological Trust, the Historic Towns Trust and a long list of contributors to the layouts.

“Forty-three years of archaeological research have greatly increased the amount of ground-tested data about York in the past that could be incorporated in a York atlas. Similar strides have been made in the study and understanding of the documentary and cartographic sources in which York is so rich.

A photo of a man holding up a print-out showing a modern and ancient map of a city
The resource offers a topographical definition of the city© YAT
“Methods of map production and design have been revolutionised over the four-and-a-half decades. In 1972 computers, for example, were rarely used in any of the work, but now digital mapping is the norm.”

The 1852 map was vectorised, simplifying its data and replacing pavement edges, seating plans of public buildings and other finer but ultimately superfluous details with new information gleaned from centuries of archaeology.

A photo of a man holding up a print-out showing a modern and ancient map of a city
A range of new symbols highlight major buildings, surviving earthworks, water-filled features and land use in 1852© YAT
Dr Addyman says the research has taken an “inordinately long” amount of time, but believes it could lead to a “golden age” of future maps, resulting in enhanced, interactive and 3-D illustrations.

Town planners and developers are also expected to benefit from surveys originally used by geographers and urban historians.

  • British Historic Towns Atlas Volume V: York is available to buy from most York booksellers.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

Three museums to see great maps in

National Museum Cardiff
When the industrial revolution was in full swing, the demand for coal, iron and limestone was huge. William Smith, a blacksmith’s son from Oxfordshire, realised that a map showing where different rock layers (strata) came to the surface would be of great value. See his work in the currrent exhibition, Reading the Rocks. Until February 28 2016.

American Museum in Britain, Bath
In 1988 Dr. Dallas Pratt, co-founder of the American Museum in Britain, gave the Museum over 200 Renaissance maps of the New World – a collection acclaimed by scholars as one of the finest holdings of rare printed world maps in existence. The permanent exhibition, New World, Old Maps, features a rotating display of historic maps in the American Museum’s collection.

Graves Gallery, Sheffield
The Sheffield Cutlery Map celebrates some of the leading cutlery manufacturers that were established in the city from the 1800s to the present day. The new display, Sheffield Cutlery on the Map, showcases a selection of objects featured in the map, made by firms that were based near the Millennium Gallery. Until April 4 2016.
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This is just the sort of publication that the city has been crying out for, which makes my disappointment all the greater when I got hold of a copy. There is an enormous amount of information on Mediaeval York, but the maps from this period are dreadfully "dumbed down". The many alleyways are ignored, posts at the end of lanes, waterpumps and "houses of ease;" none of these are shown. Neither is the "Fish Landing" "Butter Market" etc etc I could go on. Shame.
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