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Hidden images in national maps

A topographic map is by definition the graphic representation of a territory. Thanks to its high quality, the graphic design of our national maps comes close to reality. However, despite strict requirements concerning precision and rigorousness, they sometimes conceal treasures born of their creator’s imagination.

21.12.2016 | DKW

National maps are not only based on computer tools and topographical models, but still and without exception on the human hand.

Visual representation

When creating a map, the cartographer represents a territory visually on his or her screen using technology as a basis.

The cartographers’ profession has evolved over time. Today, they use geographic information systems (GIS) and have thus become geomaticians specialising in cartography. They are experts in surveying, modelling, updating, analysing and representing spatial referencing information. 

Landscapes change with urban development or climatic variations for example, and maps need updating. Maps and their contents are reworked during the updating process. In rare cases, just like an artist or a graphic designer, cartographers give free rein to their imagination and hide drawings that are hard to find but always relate to their environment.

These drawings in no way detract from the precision and details of our maps, nor from the safety of their users. They just add a touch of mystery to these national symbols.

First drawing, the spider

Swiss cartographers have always been strict in their work, allowing Swiss cartography to be renowned worldwide. Even though whimsy does not always have a place in this work, the first known drawing appeared in the early 1980s: it was a “white” spider very near the top of the Eiger.

It is based on a névé firn (the body of the spider) in a very narrow and technically difficult passage. It is known and feared by climbers who ascend the North Face of the Eiger. Cartographer Othmar Wyss was the first to have the audacity to add a little joke to the map drawing. Seven years later, the spider disappeared during updating.

National map to 1:50,000 scale, 254 Interlaken, edition 1981 - 2'643'393, 1'158'802

“Hardermandli”, the climber and the fish

On map 254 again and north-west of the town of Interlaken, a face is drawn on the rock face. Like the spider, it can actually be seen horizontally on the ground. This spot attracts many curiosity-seekers. Its name reflects that of the summit, a bit higher on the “Harderkulm” map. Its author is cartographer Friedrich Siegfried, who specialises in relief representation.

National map to 1:50,000 scale, 254 Interlaken, edition 1981, 2'631'950, 1'171'661

At the end of the 1990s, he also drew a climber ascending an Italian slope. According to the way they are divided up, Swiss maps sometimes cover the territory of neighbouring countries. His presence is apparently owed to a lack of information and data from the Italian geographical services, which the cartographer covered in an artistic manner. Interestingly, this climber still appears in the current edition of the 1:100 000 scale map.

National map to 1:100,000 scale, 39 Flüelapass, edition 2001, 2'820'756, 1'158'735

After a climber up in the mountains, it is logical to find a fish in a lake. This was cartographer Werner Leuenberger’s way of thinking. Again, it is on the other side of the border, but this time in France.  It was not immediately picked up on by correctors, because it blended in subtly with the representation of the marshy zone of the lake. It is only in the 1989 edition of the map that it disappeared from the surface of the lake, diving to the depths.

National map to 1:100,000 scale, 35 Vallorbe, edition 1983, 2'510'074, 1'180'060

The year of the marmot

The latest cartographer’s tease is the Aletsch Glacier marmot. In September 2016, a cartography professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich published the location of this attractive animal’s hiding place on social media.

Like any hidden drawing, the information had been kept secret by two or three people within our Office. As soon as our attention was drawn to it, we quickly looked around for possible authors amongst the specialists in rock drawings. We thus learned that its author, Paul Ehrlich, a cartographer specialising in rock drawings, had created it just before retiring in 2011. A graphic rarity, it was the first time a drawing was created on a map to 1:25,000 scale. It is all the more interesting that the marmot can be seen even more clearly in the new 1:10,000 scale map, generated automatically. Paul confessed that he had thought of several ideas and places. He tried to create a drawing that did not change reality in the slightest, and whose subject had something to do with the environment where it was placed. When he was working on the rocky zone of this map, the space for his drawing immediately caught his attention. Everything fell into place to position the marmot. Only the future will tell if the marmot is still visible in the next edition of the map, around 2019. We asked Paul if he had hidden other drawings, to which he answered that he had tried many ideas, but that the marmot was the best in his opinion.

Maybe you will take a closer look at maps from now on – you might find other hidden drawings!

National map to 1:25,000 scale, 1269 Aletschgletscher, edition 2013, 2'645'950, 1'140'146

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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern
+41 58 469 01 11


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Federal Office of Topography swisstopo

Seftigenstrasse 264
P.O. Box
3084 Wabern

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