The Hadrian's Wall Map
A 3 Dimensional Map of Hadrian's Wall

A 3 Dimensional Map of Hadrian's Wall

This article shows you how to make a 3 dimensional model from publically-available elevation maps. Elevation maps help map readers understand the hills and valleys an area. Hikers can read the maps to understand which areas will be difficult to walk or where the hilltops and scenic views are located. Surveyors can use the map to find where to build a tower or roadway. A model more vividly displays the topology and elevations of a particular area. Using the model you can see the hills and valleys, and you can get an idea of why the buildings, roads, forests and lakes are situated where they are. With this project, you can model your hometown or a famous region of the world and take a tour of nearly any place you desire.

Using a computer printer and simple materials such as glue and cardboard, one can make these elevation maps come alive. By cutting layers along the contour lines, one can build a model that shows the hills and valleys in 3 dimensions: width, depth, and height. Because this project involves using sharp razor knives, I recommend it for ages 15 years and up. However, younger modellers can also build this project easily if an adult does the cutting.

Mount the map
Mount the map on foam core
For this project, I chose to model a portion of Hadrian's Wall, a World Heritage Site that stretches across the width of northern England in the United Kingdom. It was built by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 A.D. to mark the northern boundary of the Roman Empire. I chose this region near the town of Bardon Mills because it is a beautiful and hilly part of the wall that has two well-known Roman forts (Vindolanda and Housesteads). It also has a settlement on a hilltop that was used to light signal fires between the two forts. Today you can visit the wall and tour the fantastic scenery of this beautiful site.

To make this model, you must start with quality maps. These Hadrian's Wall maps are produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service and reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey, the government mapping service of the United Kingdom. This particular map shows a 3 km by 3 km region at 1:25,000 scale and is printed out to be about 21 cm (8 inches) on a side. You can choose any region or scale you like, but I like the 1:25,000 scale because it is the most detailed that Ordnance Survey offers, and it is easy to envision yourself hiking or mountain biking the region at this scale. For similar maps of the United States visit the U.S. Geological Survey site.

First, use your browser to save the map image to your computer. You must print a number of maps equal to the number of elevation changes you wish to model. For instance, my map of Hadrian's Wall had elevation lines that range from 150 to 320 meters above sea level. The elevation lines are spaced every 10 meters, so I need to print 17 maps, one each for 150 m, 160 m, 170 m, etc. to 320 m. For your first model, I recommend that you choose a map that has no more than 15 to 20 elevation lines.

The first map is trimmed and glued to a piece of foam core, which is a 5 mm (1/4 inch) thick sandwich of foam between two sheets of cardboard. You can also glue the first map to plywood or some other material, but it is good to start with a nice sturdy base for your model. For glue, I use spray adhesive that many people use to mount photos. The spray makes a nice thin, even coat of glue on the underside of the map with no lumps. Use permanent adhesive, not the removable kind: you don't want your map lifting away from the backing.

Cut the contour lines
Use a sharp knife to cut along contour lines
For each elevation layer, glue another map print out to a piece of 1 to 2 mm (1/16th inch) matte board. Matte board is the cardboard that people often use to frame photos. Matte board, foam core, and printing paper are all available at a craft or hobby shop such as Michael's or Hobby Lobby.

Now here is the tricky, dangerous, and time-consuming part of the project. Using a sharp razor knife, cut along each contour line. As shown in the photo, the Ordnance Survey maps have contour lines printed in tan/salmon colored ink. Using sharp blades, it often takes two or three traces to cut through the matte board. Be careful and never cut towards your body parts. You don't want the knife to slip and cut you. Do your cutting on a plastic razor mat or disposable work surface. You don't want to leave razor marks in the dining room table.

Take your time. Each matte board required about 30-45 minutes to cut. I cut and glued about 2 to 4 layers per night. Mind your body. It is very tiresome on the hands and fingers, and you should take breaks to avoid soreness or repetitive stress injuries.


Glue the level
Glue the back of this elevation
Once an elevation layer is cut, use ordinary white or tacky glue on the back of the matte board to glue it to the layer beneath. Align the edges of the map and the cut-out regions with the lines of the level beneath it. Stack a few heavy books on the layers until the glue dries to keep each layer flat.

If you are doing this project in groups or as a family, note that the matte cutting is about 80 percent of the work. Another 10 percent is printing the maps. The last 10 percent is gluing the maps. Estimate about an hour per layer for a model of this size. Of course, the first few layers may take twice as long.

Consider a few cutting alternatives. This project would be much easier with an automated method to cut the mattes. One could cut the mattes easily with a product such as the Versa Laser. Also some sort of computer numeric controlled mill would allow you to make layers in wood or plastic. Such products would make this project as easy as making a set of printouts. However these tools are expensive. Also, a fine-toothed coping saw would be much easier on the hands because you would use a sawing motion rather than a pressing motion.

Stack the layers
Stack the elevation layers
This photo shows the first 4 layers of matte board for the model. As you see, the Vindolanda Fort is near the Bradley River, and the model clearly shows the river valley near the fort. The lowest elevation on this map is 150 meters in the river bed at this corner of the map. Layer by layer, the hills and cliffs begin to take shape. I've seen this sort of layer building approach used in many museum dioramas. (If you see any nice online references, let me know.)

A low perspective
A lower perspective of the elevations
This photo shows the completed model. The near corner is the location of the Vindolanda Fort. The far corner is the location of the Vercovicium Fort also known as Housesteads. The tallest elevation is at 325 meters on the left bank of the river on the left side of the model. The right bank of the river has a hill at 279 meters that has a settlement where signal fires were lit to communicate between the two forts. The yellow band on the map runs along the Roman road known as the Stangate. It also marks the lower boundary of the Hadrian's Wall National Park.

Note that the vertical scale of the model is exaggerated. The map represents an area of 3 km by 3 km, and 1 km on the map is about 7 cm on the model. Since the map expresses a vertical change of about 150 m, a scaled vertical change on the model would be about 10 mm. My model height is about 3 times that change. If you want a truly scaled map, consider using heavy folder paper rather than matte board. This also might ease cutting of the layers of the model.

A close up
A close up of the hills
Here is a closeup view of the model. Here you can clearly see Hadrian's Wall running along the hills at the top of the photo. The dotted lines parallel to the wall and the road at the center show the course of the Vallum. The Vallum was a series of ditches and earth walls that acted as a second obstacle for this fortification.

One of the hilltops near Little Shield has an item known as a Tumulus. This was a burial mound perhaps containing the bones and possessions of a regional king. Likely it was robbed of all valuable materials long ago. But it is fascinating to see that this important person was buried in a mound on the top of a hill.

Reverse view from the north
Reverse view from the north
Finally, here is a reverse view of the model, looking from the north east to the south west. Nearest the viewer is the Housesteads fort. On the farthest corner is the Vindolanda fort.

Thank you for reading this far about my 3 dimensional map of Hadrian's Wall. Those who like making projects might also like my Trebuchet or Armor Construction pages. Those who like miniatures and models might like the Miniatures pages of this site. Those who like board and card games might like the Board Games site.

If you have any models or projects related to history or Hadrian's Wall, let me know. I would love to hear about it. Also any other links that would further illustrate this story are also appreciated. Thanks for visiting and reading my site.

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Last modified: Thursday, 09-Jun-2011 13:03:01 MST.