Maps have used the art of cartography and maps for thousands of years to assist people in navigating their surroundings and get from one point to another.

The History of Maps

Maps include indications of changes in landscape and note landmarks that allow us to understand our surroundings better. There has been a constant evolution in mapping and surveying which led to the study of maps, otherwise known as cartography, being founded sometime in the 2nd century CE.

Prehistoric and early history 

The first map of recorded in history is ‘the Imago Mundi’ that was discovered in Southern Iraq in 1889. The map was scratched into clay tablets sometime around 600B.C. and depicts the ancient Babylonian city, Babylon, at its centre with the Euphrates river running through it. It is typical of most ancient maps to have the location in which they were made as its focal point.

Areas surrounding Babylon such as Assyria are also depicted as rectangular indents in the clay tablets and are labelled using the ancient writing form, cuneiform. It’s notable that far-off empires such as the Persians and the Egyptians were known to the Babylonians but deliberately excluded from the map.

It is believed that ‘the Imago Mundi’ and other Babylonian maps were made using surveying techniques. There is also evidence that the Egyptians and Phoenicians were also creating maps during this time using clever surveying techniques. It is believed that the Egyptians resorted to maps in order to redefine borders subsequent to the regular flooding of the Nile.

The maps created by the Phoenicians have led researchers to believe that they had an understanding of the spherical earth model long before it was the accepted model. Most maps during this period focused on hunting grounds, settlements, boundaries, and significant landmark features. There is evidence that during this time in North America, Polynesians used woven intricate palm leaf mats with twigs positioned to show the currents and prevailing winds and shells depicting islands.

Interestingly, the first map ever is not of any earthly dwelling but of the stars. Dots dating back to 14,500B.C. were found in the Lascaux caves in southwestern France. These dots appear to be an attempt at mapping the night sky. The map is executed with such exactitude that well-known star formations such as the Pleiades star cluster, or the Summer Triangle Asterism can be recognized.

Classic era 

One of the most remarkable and influential figures in the history of cartography is Claudius Ptolemaeus, better known as Ptolemy. Ptolemy was a Roman citizen and his knowledge in astronomy, mathematics, and geography was prized throughout the Roman Empire.

Ptolemy applied mathematical principles to mapmaking, leading to significantly more accurate maps that are based on latitude and longitude. Ptolemy impressively mapped the ‘old world’ from latitudes of about 60oN to 30oS. However, some notable errors in Ptolemy’s eight-volume textbook “Geography” are the Indian ocean being depicted as a sea.

However, the breadth and detail of the volume are nonetheless impressive with its 8,000 place names and depictions of various parts of the world. Ptolemy’s work greatly influenced not only his fellow Roman and Greek scholars but was often used by other European and Islamic scholars well into the renaissance.

Prior to Ptolemy’s valuable revelations, maps in the early Greek and Roman empires were based on the flat-earth model. An example of this is Hecataeus’ map of Greece depicting the world as an island with Greece at the centre.

Middle ages 

Throughout the middle ages, scholarly pursuits predominantly became the realm of the religious. Most of the maps created in Europe from 476A.D. to 1453A.D. were the product of monasteries. It is, therefore, no surprise that the majority of maps from this time are subject to a certain religious flare.

Medieval maps are often adorned with religious or fantasy symbolism such as angels, dragons, and monsters. The Hereford ‘Mappa Mundi’, dating from 1300, is one of the more remarkable maps of this time. This map, as was common of the time, depicts Jerusalem at its centre with the east to the top.

However, during this time there were significant improvements being made in Islamic map-making with the renowned cartographer Al-Idrisi at the centre of the enhancements.

The Renaissance was a time of huge developments in map-making. The ground-breaking discovery of the Americas by European nations led to revived interest in what lay overseas. Together with the invention of Johannes Gutenberg’s Printing Press and the growth of major publishing houses – cartography was the study of the moment.

Wide-spread publishing and the establishment of institutions such as the French Academy of Science led more and more people into the pursuit of knowledge. Naturally, this thirst for knowledge extended towards mapping and navigation.

The European ocean-going explorers of the time such as Columbus, da Gama, or Vespucci all took map-makers and navigators with them on their journeys to survey the yet unexplored and depict the recorded data as a map.

In the late 1700s maps were increasingly used to not only depict a landscape but to also convey the demographics of the people living there.

Renaissance and age of exploration

Geraldus Mercator, a leading Belgian geographer, and cartographer heralded in the new age of the Mercator projection in 1569 which almost all map projections are still based off to this day. The Mercator projection is an attempt at fitting around the world onto a flat page. This is achieved by stretching the earth’s poles to match the length of the equator. This is not exact and leads to distortions of size throughout the map.

Coming into the late 17th century and early 18th century maps found a new cause in military use and colonialism. It was around this time that the Ordnance Survey was founded and eventually employed to survey and map lands that were to be covered in military excursions. These maps provided generals with the perfect vantage point from which to strategise.

Aerial photography that arose from taking images from the planes used in WWI was soon followed by Satellite photography. Both are used in the making of overhead maps and compounds that can provide the most exact depiction of a landscape.

Cartography and the Computer Age

The biggest revolution in map-making technologies occurred in the 1970s with the invention of Geographic Information Systems (GIS.) This allowed for the creation of computerized, large-scale digitization of maps with the entirety of the UK finally being mapped in 1995.

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