Maps, Part I: Defining and Explaining our Past, Present and Future

800px-FraMauroDetailedMapHistory can be difficult to understand. The way it is told and interpreted depends on the point of view of a person or a culture, the time period from which it is being viewed and a thousand other variables that affect what is actually perceived as the truth of history. One of the greatest tools for anyone wanting to learn more about the past is often overlooked. Maps do more than tell us how to get where we’re going. Maps give us visual representations of the past. They can illustrate growth and movement of civilizations, the spread of various cultures, patterns that repeat themselves throughout time and so much more. Today we’re bringing you some fantastic resources that will help to illuminate the past and explain it in ways you may never have considered. These are great sites to use on your own or in the classroom.

First, let’s take a quick look at the history of map-making. Cartography, the art and science of making maps, is ancient. The earliest known evidence of maps is found on Babylonian clay tablets from around 2300 BCE.[1] Many civilizations such as the Egyptians and Greeks used maps regularly to impose order on their world. The Chinese drew maps as far back as the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BCE). In fact, it is said that the Greek philosopher Anaximander (c. 610-546 BCE) was the first to create a map of the known world.[2]

Oldest world map babylonian

Babylonian clay tablet circa 2300 BCE. Oldest known map.

Maps in the ancient world were often as much a work of art and treasured status symbol to the owner as they were an actual reference document.[3] They were extremely time-consuming to make and took considerable skill. Orientation was not a concern, but artistic illustrations were valued. As the Greeks and then the Romans continued to study and advance cartography, the practice began to look more like what we see in our modern maps. Marinus of Tyre (ca. 70-130 CE) was a Phoenician geographer, cartographer and mathematician credited as founding mathematical geography.[4] His work heavily influenced Claudius Ptolemy, who in 150 CE published Geographia, a treatise filled with maps of the world that included latitudinal and longitudinal lines. Ptolemy had imposed mathematical rules on cartography and therefore had revolutionized geographic thinking.[5] Indeed, Geographia was the most famous classical map of the world, unsurpassed for almost 1500 years.”[6]

Map-making continued to make significant jumps forward throughout the Renaissance and into the modern age. As new areas of the world were discovered and mapped, our understanding of the globe and its position in the heavens broadened along with practice of map-making. Today, maps are not simply made to chart the world around us, but to understand that world and its people.

Maps That Help Explain Our World and Its Past

*Most, but not all, of these collections are provided by, a great resource for map lists.

Don’t miss Maps, Part 2: Defining and Explaining our Past, Present and Future as we explore how space exploration has expanded the boundaries of human perception and understanding.

[1] Aber, J. (n.d.). History of maps and cartography. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

[2] Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

[3] History of Mapping. (n.d.). Retrieved November 14, 2014, from

[4] Marinus of Tyre, Phoenicia, and Evolution of Ancient Maps. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

[5] Ibid.

[6] Marinus of Tyre, Phoenicia, and Evolution of Ancient Maps. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2014, from

[7] Danforth, N. (2014, July 31). 15 Maps That Don’t Explain the Middle East at All. Retrieved November 14, 2014

[8] Blanding, M. (n.d.). The 10 Most Important Maps in U.S. History. Retrieved November 14, 2014

5 responses to “Maps, Part I: Defining and Explaining our Past, Present and Future

  1. Thanks for this post, but you should consider and emended version with additional postings. For instance you should consider including resources such as the Pelagios consortium (, the Ancient World Mapping Center (, the Pleiades Project (, the Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire (, Omnes Viae (, ORBIS (, as well as information about ancient maps such as the Tabula Peutingeriana ( The AWOL blog has an up-to-date roundup of ancient world geography resources (

    • We so appreciate your comments and links to additional resources. We will incorporate them into the post and the Education Topic Matrix. We welcome feedback and invite submissions from archaeologists, educators, lovers of history and all those who care about preserving our world heritage. Thank you for your support!

  2. Pingback: Maps, Part 2: Defining and Explaining our Past, Present and Future | AntiquityNOW

  3. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Asia | AntiquityNOW

  4. Pingback: Summer Reading Recap: Mesopotamia and the Middle East | AntiquityNOW

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