History 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. Indeed, Geographia was the most famous classical map of the world, unsurpassed for almost 1500 years.”
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 Vox.com, a great resource for map lists.
- Roman Empire
- 40 Maps That Explain the Roman Empire– Think you know the Romans? Think again. This will give you a whole new perspective.
- Digital Atlas of the Roman Empire by the Pelagios Project
- ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World– ” By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.”
- The Peutinger Map– “The Peutinger Map is the only map of the Roman world to come down to us from antiquity. An elongated object full of colorful detail and featuring land routes across Europe, North Africa, and the Near East, it was mysteriously rediscovered around 1500 and then came into the ownership of Konrad Peutinger, for whom it is named.”
- The Roman Empire Map– One map that can be changed and explored, compared and contrasted by clicking on the specific time period, emperor, etc. that you wish to see.
- The Middle East
- 40 Maps That Explain the Middle East– This incredible collection of maps helps to illuminate the Middle East, its past, present and future, in ways you may never have considered.
- 15 Maps That Don’t Explain the Middle East At All– According to The Atlantic, this fascinating collection of maps “provide(s) a more fluid perspective on the Middle East, often by showing what didn’t happen as opposed to what did.”
- 38 Maps That Explain Europe– Addressing its history, people, economy, politics, culture and more, this list will give you a brilliant way to explore Europe.
- History of Europe Interactive Map– Mouse over areas to get more information about a myriad of topics.
- History of the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe Interactive Map– Mouse over areas to explore this mysterious time in history.
- The United States
- 40 Maps That Explain Food in America– Discover how American has sustained its people throughout the centuries and how food is shaping the country today.
- The Ten Most Important Maps In U.S. History– “It’s not too strong a statement to say that without these pieces of paper, the United States as we know it would never have existed—or else, it would look radically different today.”
- The World Wars
- The World
- The Ancient World Online: AWOL– Explore a wonderful collection of resources on ancient geography, including numerous maps.
- The Pelagios Consortium– “Pelagios is a collective of projects connected by a shared vision of a world…in which the geography of the past is every bit as interconnected, interactive and interesting as the present. Each project represents a different perspective on our shared history, whether map, text or archaeological record…”
- 40 Maps That Explain The World– From academia.edu, an expansive collection of past and present.
- 40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of The World– This is a fun and eclectic collection that will surprise and inform you.
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.
 Aber, J. (n.d.). History of maps and cartography. Retrieved November 14, 2014, from http://academic.emporia.edu/aberjame/map/h_map/h_map.htm
 Danforth, N. (2014, July 31). 15 Maps That Don’t Explain the Middle East at All. Retrieved November 14, 2014
 Blanding, M. (n.d.). The 10 Most Important Maps in U.S. History. Retrieved November 14, 2014