this is how the earth must see itself

The Ordnance Survey’s (OS) mapping of Great Britain in the late eighteenth century was a landmark in human attempts to know the land. Seeking defence against a feared French invasion, the priority was to survey the South Coast of England, and anything that could be hidden behind. Walking up to 40 miles a day, the field surveyors were tasked with categorising the landscape they passed through according to a list of predefined rules.

From the earliest map sheets the ‘rock features’ were treated as ornament. Formations observed on the surface of the earth are not simply decorative surface features, but represent the intersection of the earth’s surface with the body of the earth. The processes of weathering and erosion, coupled with the human hand, shape the visibility of rocks on the surface, and can move the rocks from one category to another.

In the 1950s the OS rock symbols were re-evaluated. Through the careful examination of aerial photographs a new type of drawing was created to represent these rock features in a line drawing. Where necessary, the draughtsman exaggerated the feature to achieve clarity. The OS explorer map today uses these five symbols to describe the ‘natural’ rock features of the whole of Great Britain.

To order the landscape into these five categories some of the questions we must ask include; is the formation horizontal or vertical? is it less than 256mm in diameter? does it cover an area greater than 25sqm? Can it be moved by one person alone?

Using a combination of archival material, open source data and photographs, the project follows these rock features as a guide. The process of ordering the images into these pre-defined categories throws up questions as pebbles become boulders, flowing water becomes outcrop. As with all classification systems, the rules are subjective, leading to their own telling of the story.

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