Recent years have seen unprecedented characterization of mammalian chromatin thanks to advances in chromatin assays, antibody development, and genomics. Genome-wide maps of chromatin state can now be readily acquired using microarrays or next-generation sequencing technologies. These datasets reveal local and long-range chromatin patterns that offer insight into the locations and functions of underlying regulatory elements and genes. These patterns are dynamic across developmental stages and lineages. Global studies of chromatin in embryonic stem cells have led to intriguing hypotheses regarding Polycomb/trithorax and RNA polymerase roles in ‘poising’ transcription. Chromatin state maps thus provide a rich resource for understanding chromatin at a ‘systems level’, and a starting point for mechanistic studies aimed at defining epigenetic controls that underlie development.