Friday, October 12, 2012

The Maps

Commentaires de la carte Septentrionalium de Mercator (1595)

Man has used maps for thousands of years. The oldest existing maps are clay tablets dating back to 2000 B.C.E. These Babalonian maps usually depicted simple details to enable a traveller to find his way. Even in early hunter gatherer societies, hunters would often leave makers of rocks and pebbles to lead people after them, and drew crude maps in the sand to represent small areas which they used to describe to others where they had been and how to get there. Early Egyptians, with their system of measurement, mapped distances on the earth in order to produce large scale maps. Eratosthenes and Ptolemy used these early maps in their own map making.

The Greeks also developed map making to a high degree but their knowledge of the world extended only to the areas just beyond the Mediterranean Sea. Eratosthenes map of the world as he knew it made use of seven parallels and seven meridians but the grid was irregular. Ptolemy, however, used a regular grid of parallels and meridians. The influence of this map lasted until the seventeenth century, although it contained errors.

The idea of a Great Southern land, to balance the known land masses of the Northern Hemisphere, originated with the Classical Greeks. Both the Mela Map of 43 M.E. and the Ortelius map of 1570 show this mythical continent, Terra Australis Incognito, which persisted on the maps until Captain James Cook finally dispelled the idea by his exploration of the Antarctic Seas.

With the fall of Greek civilisation and the birth of Christianity, maps became fanciful rather than factual. The idea of a flat earth was reintroduced at this point. Maps were often centred around Jerusalem and with the rest of the world around it. Meridians and parallels were seldom shown and scale was absent. Maps such as the Turin map, frequently showed Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Cosmos depicted a flat rectangular earth but all were surrounded by seas, often believed to be inhabited by monsters, with Paradise beyond.

From the beginning of the thirteenth century, great changes took place. With Ptolemy's map to guide them, map makers again attempted to draw what they observed of the earth surface. The great period of exploration which reached a climax between 1500 and 1800 resulted in the addition of maps of considerable detail and therefore useful to navigators.

Taken, in part from Longman's Practical Geographer. R.S. Coggins & R.K. Hefford. 1957.

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