Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth

Stephanie Schoppert - April 18, 2017

Maps have always been a guide to the world around us, but they are more than just descriptions of the landscape and directions across the sea. Maps give insight into the culture and history of humanity. Ancient maps have been able to completely change how we see the ancient world, just as those maps were once the first glimpse some people got of the larger world they lived in. Here are some of the oldest and most influential maps of the ancient world.

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth
A piece of Forma Urbis Romae.

Forma Urbis Romae

The Forma Urbis Romae was carved sometime at the beginning of the 3rd century. It is believed to be a very large marble plan of Rome that represented every architectural feature in the city. There was no building or hovel left off of the map and each road was clearly defined. The map was hung on the interior wall of the Temple of Peace.

The map measured 60 feet wide by 45 feet high and it was carved into 150 marble slabs. The map has the specific years 205-208 and was based on property records at the time. It was created on a scale of 1:240 and was so detailed that it included the floor plans of nearly every temple, bath and, insula in the city.

The boundaries of the map were defined by the amount of space that they had on the marble rather than any specific geographical or political borders. The map was oriented with the south at the top of the map and it even included the names and plans of both public and private homes and buildings. The function of the map is unknown, although some believe that it might have been used to record land ownership because of the meticulous its nature. Others believe the size of the map made this impractical, and that it was just done as a showpiece.

Sadly, the map did not withstand the test of time. During the Middle Ages, the marble stones were taken down to be used as building materials or for making lime. Today, only 1,186 pieces of the map are known to still exist, and all the pieces together only make up 10% to 15% of the overall map.

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth
Close-up of a Danish Map Stone.

Danish Map Stones

In June 2016, a new discovery at a Danish archaeological site had many people very excited. 10 stone fragments were found during an excavation at the Vasagard site in Bornholm, a small island in the Baltic Sea. Excavations have been conducted at the site since the 1990s.

Throughout the excavations, hundreds of different broken flat stones with radiating straight lines have been found. These stones were dubbed “sun stones” because it is believed that they were used as part of the sun-worshiping rituals that were performed at the site about 5,000 years ago. The stones discovered at the site in 2016 are very different, which is what has many archaeologists believing that they are not sun stones at all, but rather map stones.

These stones are very detailed and look like stylized map drawings. There are pictures of mountains and fields with crops. What is remarkable about the stones is that they are quite small despite likely being some sort of map and featuring rather detailed carvings. The most detailed stone measures only 2 inches across and is broken into three pieces. The other stone pieces with map etchings were of a similar size.

Since the pieces were just fragments, much like the pieces of sun stones that were discovered, archaeologists believe that the map stones were deliberately crushed. Often the stun stones would be crushed during rituals and the pieces scattered. The shape and location of the map stones suggest something similar was done to them. The culture that existed on the site between 2900 BCE and 2700 BCE placed importance on ritual objects but also gave them a sort of shelf life. They would be destroyed at a sacred place to increase the magic of the ritual and then the broken pieces would no longer be of use in the human world, but they could be useful to the spirit world.

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth
Turin Papyrus Map.

Turin Papyrus

The Turin Papyrus is considered to be one of the oldest surviving topographical maps of the ancient world. It was first discovered sometime prior to 1824 by Bernardino Dorvetti from Deir el-Medina in Thebes. The map itself dates back to 1160 BCE and was drawn by the Scribe-of-the-Tomb Amennakhte, son of Ipuy. The map was created for Ramesses IV for an expedition to the Wadi Hammamat in the Eastern Desert.

The purpose of the expedition was to quarry bekhen-stone, which was a greyish-green stone that was highly sought after by the ancient Egyptians. Why the stone was so prized is unknown, but it is clear that the map was drawn in order to document the expedition to find the stone. It is believed that this map was meant to be given either to the Pharaoh or the high priest in order to provide a visual record.

When the three map fragments were first discovered it was believed that they were part of separate maps, however, it was later found that all three pieces were from the same map. The current arrangement of the pieces has a length of 9 feet and a width of 1.3 feet. The map has no consistent scale, but it is clear that the map shows a 9 mile stretch of Wadi Hammamat.

The map’s orientation is south to north, with the Nile’s west bank on the right side and the east bank on the left side. The map clearly shows the surrounding hills, the location of the prized bekhen-stone quarry, and the Bir Umm Fwakhir settlement. The use of colors and distinctive features make the Turin Papyrus one of the earliest known Geographic Information Systems.

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth
Babylonian Map depicting their view of the ancient world.

Imago Mundi – Ancient Babylonian Map

In the late 1800s, a broken clay tablet was discovered and it is recognized as one of the oldest known maps in the world. It was found on the banks of the Euphrates River and offered a whole new look at how the ancient Babylonians saw their world. Measuring at 122 x 82 mm, the tablet dates back to 600 BCE.

The tablet has a map of the Mesopotamian world, with Babylon at its center. Surrounding Babylon are two circles that represent the ocean, they are named “bitter water” and “salt sea.”. Babylon, Assyrian, and Elam are all labeled clearly on the map. Also on the map are 8 triangular regions that surround the “salt sea.”

The map is detailed enough to have distances, descriptions of each of the regions, and even information on the great heroes and beasts that were believed to inhabit each region. The Euphrates River is shown running from the mountains over Babylon and then down through Babylon and into the southern marshes below. The marshes are depicted as two parallel lines, and the curved line represents the Zagros mountains.

The tablet is damaged and it is presumed that the damaged section has three missing islands. With those three islands, the map would show the entire world as the Babylonians knew it. It is the only map from the period that shows the islands beyond the ocean. Most other maps of the period were localized to the place where they were drawn. Some believe that the extra islands are there to show the mythological world as well.

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth
Ptolemy World Map created in the 15th century. Wikipedia

Map of the North by Ptolemy

In 150 CE Ptolemy wrote Geography. He described the world as it was known to Hellenistic society. Using the descriptions in the book, Agathodaemon of Alexandria created what is now known as the Ptolemy world map. It was created in the 2nd century and had a number of very significant features.

One of the most monumental contributions of the Ptolemic map is the inclusion of longitudinal and latitudinal lines. The maps also give terrestrial locations in addition to celestial observations. Featured on the map are the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa (labeled as Libya). The Mediterranean and Indian are two enclosed seas on the map.

Geography and the map that was created from the writings had a tremendous impact on the expansion of the Roman Empire. After this map was created, the Empire expanded to the east, and trade throughout the Indian Ocean increased. Many of the Roman trading ports of the 2nd century were found in India and Roman embassies made their way into China.

The map created by Ptolemy’s description of the world in the 15th century was a revolution in mapmaking. The translation of Ptolemy’s Geography into Latin made each country’s size dependent on mathematical calculations and not on their relative importance to the world. Despite the fact that Ptolemy’s calculations were wrong, it forever changed how the world created maps. From then on, accurate measurement and depiction was the goal of mapmaking.

Navigating the Ancient World: 6 Maps that Changed How People Viewed the Earth
Moli de Salt map detailing the hut etchings.

Moli del Salt Map

Moli del Salt is a rockshelter site located in northwestern Iberia. The site dates back to the Paleolithic era over 13,000 years ago. Excavation began in 1999 and has continued ever since with many unique finds from the hunter-gatherer society. One slab stands out from the rest and is considered by some to be one of the first maps in human history.

The slab measures about 18 cm wide, 8.5 cm high, and 3.6 cm thick. It may look like just a crumbling rock, but Marcos Garcia-Diez and Manuel Vaquero recently conducted a study that took a much closer look at the slab. Etched into the rock are seven semicircular motifs which look very similar to the huts built by the hunter-gatherers of the period. Another reason why they believe that the shapes are representations is because there are seven, which was the typical size of a hunter-gatherer camp for the period.

While it might not seem like much to have a slab showing seven huts, it is something very unique in terms of Paleolithic art. Typically the art of the period is abstract symbols or animals. If it truly does show a hunter-gathering camp as the latest study suggests, then it would be the first known representation of a social structure, and the oldest known map in the world.

One thing that the study did reveal was that the etching was done quickly, which means that it was likely done while the person was looking at the camp. The huts are spaced and arranged just like the camp would be and with the same characteristics of a rock shelter. Further investigation at the location uncovered more artifacts, which led some to believe that the map may have depicted the very camp they uncovered, and that the map had been kept at the site.