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Map: Athanasius Kircher, from Mundus Subterraneus (Amsterdam, 1665)
Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below is on exhibit through February 25 at the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.

You don’t have to be keen on fantasies like Alice’s Adventures Underground or Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth to be fascinated by maps of the world below our feet.

That is why, as Allison Meier writes at Hyperallergic, the Boston Public Library (BPL) is sharing its amazing array of subterranean cartography — from mythology to science, from the God of Death in Pompeii to leaded water in Flint, Michigan.

“Only in recent centuries have cartographers visualized what’s underground,” she writes. “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. …

“The Leventhal Map Center is exhibiting ‘Beneath Our Feet: Mapping the World Below,’ featuring 400 years of subterranean maps from their collections. These visualize volcanoes, catacombs, pipelines, mines, and seabeds, ranging from 19th-century geological surveys to 21st-century sensing technology. …

“ ‘We’re seeing that these maps were typically produced much later than the weather maps,’ [Stephanie Cyr, associate curator] 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. …

“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. …

“The maps in ‘Beneath Our Feet’ continue into the 21st century. … 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.”

If you can’t get to the show, you can at least see some great underground maps here and explore the online features of the show.

Hat tip: Michelle Aldredge (@gwarlingo) on twitter.

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