Four Centuries of Mapping the Subterranean World

Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map Center is exhibiting maps of volcanoes, catacombs, mines, subways, sewage systems, and other underground cartography.

Athanasius Kircher, “Systema Ideale quo Exprimitur, Aquarum per Canales Hydragogos Subterraneos ex Mari et in Montium Hydrophylacia Protrusio, Aquarumq. Subterrestrium per Pyragogos Canales Concoctus,” from Mundus Subterraneus (Amsterdam, 1665) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

Only in recent centuries have cartographers visualized what’s underground. Early mapmakers employed mythology to explain the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that seemed to erupt from some dark force, and sometimes swallow whole communities, like Pompeii or Herculaneum. Even now, our ability to delve below the thin crust on which we’ve built our civilization is limited by the intense pressure and molten magma that churns within the planet.

“It’s not natural for humans to be there, and it’s a little bit scary, as we also associate beneath the ground with death,” Stephanie Cyr, associate curator at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library (BPL), told Hyperallergic. “Maybe that had something to do with not wanting to go down there for a long time.”

The Leventhal Map Center is exhibiting Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below, featuring 400 years of subterranean maps from their collections. These visualize volcanos, catacombs, pipelines, mines, and seabeds, ranging from 19th-century geological surveys to 21st-century sensing technology. The show follows a BPL exhibition on mapping weather and climate that similarly considered the evolution of the earth sciences through topographical art.

Charles H. Hitchcock and William P. Blake, “Geological Map of the United States” (Washington, DC, 1872) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

“We’re seeing that these maps were typically produced much later than the weather maps,” Cyr explained. The exhibition is organized into different underground subjects, such as “Earth’s Crust,” “Oceans,” “Mining,” “Archaeology,” and “Beneath Boston.” These are all further explored in an online component. The Boston focus, for instance, delves into the subway, sewage, the “Big Dig” tunnel project, and harbor hazards. It involves exhumed artifacts from the City of Boston’s Archaeology Lab, mineral specimens on loan from the Mineralogical & Geological Museum at Harvard University, and McKim, Mead & White’s blueprint for BPL, showing the wooden pilings below its foundation. There’s an additional narrative in the galleries specifically for children to follow, with its own labels, and a mascot named Digger Burrows (a rat wearing a hard hat).

“There are two major themes in the show: one is the natural Earth and the other is how humans have interacted with that Earth,” Cyr said. Indeed, as soon as people found a way to map the Earth’s underground, they began to exploit it as a resource, drilling natural gas pipelines and digging coal mines. Yet as Cyr noted, “Before we could actually get down there and explore and survey it, people had to cope with things in the best way they could, and mythology helped people do that.”

A 17th-century map on view, by Athanasius Kircher, has a tumultuous subsurface scene, with a ball of fire at the center of the Earth and all its bodies of water linked by underground waterways. A map from 1794, by Giovanni Antonio Rizzi Zannoni, plotted seismically active land in Naples, accompanying an illustration of the destruction of Pompeii with the figure of Thanatos, the personification of death. In the 18th century, geological maps were first produced in Europe, although it wasn’t until the 19th century that they were actively distributed. By the mid-19th century, sub-terrestrial maps were a necessity for mining, crude oil extraction, and infrastructure, including in expanding cities like Boston.

The maps in Beneath Our Feet continue into the 21st century. Along the way are human-made engineering marvels, such as an 18th-century print of the Roman catacombs of Syracuse in Sicily; a 1793 diagram of the Great Pyramid at Giza; and a 2017 real-time online map of seismic activity from the U.S. Geological Survey Earthquake Hazards Program. Each represents a progression of our understanding and interaction with subterranean geology. And (as the inclusion of maps of lead testing in Flint, Michigan, and the invasive technique of fracking remind viewers) this knowledge can have a significant impact on the lives of the people above.

Jean-Claude Richard de Saint-Non, “Plan des Catacombes de Syracuse; Interieur d’une des Chambres Sepulcrales des Catacombes de Syracuse,” from Voyage Pittoresque … (Rome, 1795-98) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

Giovanni Rizzi-Zannoni, “Carta Del Littorale Di Napoli e de Luoghi Antichi più Rimarchevoli di quei Contorni” (Naples, 1794) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

Boston (Mass.) Transit Commission, “Plan Showing Proposed Route of Subway, February 1895” (Boston, 1895) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

Boston (Mass.) City Council, Joint Special Committee on Improved Sewage, “City of Boston Improved Sewerage: Plan Showing Region Drained by, and Lines of Proposed Intercepting Sewer, also Course of Sewer from Proposed Reservoirs 1877” (Boston, 1877) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

William Maclure, “Carte des Etats-Unis de L’Amérique-Nord” (Paris, 1811) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

)“Nuova Pianta Degli Scavi di Pompei” (1862) (courtesy Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library)

Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below continues through February 25 at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library (700 Boylston Street, Copley Square, Boston).