Powhatan's map of Virginia
February 12, 2009 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Powhatan's Mantle was the emblem of kingship worn by Wahunsenacawh, also known as Chief Powhatan, father of Pocahontas. A deerskin cloak ornamented with shell beadwork, it may at first appear to be only clothing but in fact it is also a map of the Powhatan Confederacy, which ruled most of eastern Virginia when the English first settled there. The mantle was acquired by one of the John Tradescants whose collection was the foundation of Oxford University's Ashmolean Collection and the mantle resides there still today. The first linked article is a fascination article about the mantle as well as a gallery of images of and related to Powhatan's Mantle.
posted by Kattullus (5 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
From the first link, while I am not sure about it, I love this: The European use of ovals or circles, in tandem with place names, to map Indian territory may well have been influenced by indigenous traditions of mapmaking. Whether their maps were painted on skins, sketched with charcoal on bark, scratched into the sand or ashes of a fire, or sketched with chalk or ink on European-supplied paper, American Indians preferred the metaphor of the social circle for depicting human community.

And Tylor studied this. Awesome. Also, I remember seeing a photocopy of a Cherokee(?) map in a Colonization of North America course in college and it being remarkable for being so much less cartographic and spatial as it was politically and socially meaningful. Just a big circle of the tribe that made it, with vectors/lines of varying distances in the general direction of other tribes/communities represented by larger or smaller circles.
posted by resurrexit at 8:51 PM on February 12, 2009

I can see my house! Really neat article on a very cool site. I'd never seen half these maps of Virginia.
posted by steef at 5:33 AM on February 13, 2009

While this is very cool, I have to grumble about the extension of the word "map." The linked site says:

Here thirty-four solid circles or roundlets, apparently representing all the separate chiefdoms at least nominally under Powhatan’s control, are arranged in the familiar concentric pattern around three central figures, one of which presumably is Powhatan himself (placed in an egocentric rather than an ethnocentric position). The distribution of roundlets is essentially symmetrical, suggesting that there was no attempt to show the actual geographical distribution of the tributary chiefdoms. In its symbolic content and organization, this decorated cloak differs little from the later Catawba [ca. 1721], Chickasaw [ca. 1723], and Chickasaw/Alabama [1737] maps.

Well, I'm sorry, but if there's "no attempt to show the actual geographical distribution," then it's not a map as far as I'm concerned. The essence of a map is geographical distribution. They say:

To most accurately portray social and political relationships across large expanses of territory within the confines of an animal skin, such metaphoric maps required a shift in perspective that replaced “absolute measures of Euclidean distance with a flexible, topological view of space.”

A metaphor is not a map. I can say a poem is a map of a poet's use of language, but that doesn't mean I want to buy something called an atlas and find it's a poetry anthology. In its zeal for breaking down barriers and expanding old categories and other useful goals, it seems to me modern "soft sciences" have lost sight of what was actually useful about those categories. It's great that the cloak encodes so much social information, but it's not a map. Dammit.

That said, this is very cool, and I thank you for posting it!
posted by languagehat at 6:48 AM on February 13, 2009

languagehat: it's not a map

Organizational map?
posted by Kattullus at 8:33 AM on February 13, 2009

Yeah, you might as well say the field of stars on the US flag is a map.

And the bars are an out-of-date map.
posted by Flunkie at 9:41 AM on February 13, 2009

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