Cartography in the Ancient World

No maps remain from the Ancient Greeks and Romans, yet we know that they looked to the stars and to the widening world around them and responded with their own influential cartography.

, currently on view at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, unearths this mapping through around 40 objects on loan from various institutions like the Metropolitan Museum and the New York Public Library, some rarely seen at all. While we don’t have the Greco-Roman Ptolemy‘s original Geographia, his enduring treatise on cartography, we do have objects from those who meticulously republished his work or were directly inspired by it: the richly illustrated 13th-century De Mundi Sphaera by scholar and monk Johannes de Sacrobosco, for instance, which merged Ptolemy and Islamic astronomy, as well as the 16th-century work of French cartographer Oronce Fine that attempted to link the ideas of Ptolemy with the “New World” discoveries.

Why the cartographers of antiquity endure may be because they just spent more time refining and using mapping as a navigational tool — as well as a political and social one — than anyone had before. The exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World only takes over one room, with another featuring computer terminals for browsing digital content (which is also available online, including an explorable Peutinger’s Roman Map if you can’t make it to Vienna to see the only surviving copy). Yet there’s a lot here to examine, particularly with the lengthy wall text, in addition to the elaborate books themselves.

There were generally two types of cartographers in the ancient world: the global thinker and the local surveyor. Those interested in the broader world tended to be philosophers, and those looking locally were interested in finding a way to chart out boundaries and just get around. Sometimes these maps were narratives of a series of places; others dared to imagine worlds people hadn’t yet even seen, where maybe cyclops monsters or aggressive griffins lurked. (If you take nothing else away from Measuring and Mapping Space, may you at least jot down the word “gryphomachie, ” which is a word for a battle between a human and a griffin.)

The Romans, with their sprawl of conquered space, were naturally interested in being able to plot this land as something they could see as a contained whole. But they went further than that, with the globe itself appearing on coins as a political symbol of control.

Oronce Fine, De Mundi Sphaera
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Piri Reis map

by Toolooselatreak

The Piri Reis map dated 1513 and it is the first surviving map that shows the Americas. The Piri Reis map shows the western coast of Africa, the eastern coast of South America, and the northern coast of Antarctica. The northern coastline of Antarctica is perfectly detailed. The most puzzling however is not so much how Piri Reis managed to draw such an accurate map of the Antarctic region 300 years before it was discovered, but that the map shows the coastline under the ice.
The Piri Reis map was made by a Turkish Admiral Piri Ibn Haji Mehmed. Reis means admiral. His passion was cartography
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The Periphery of the Classical World in Ancient Geography and Cartography (Colloquia Antiqua)
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University Of Chicago Press Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome (The Kenneth Nebenzahl, Jr., Lectures in the History of Cartography)
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WallMonkeys.com Raw material Wall Decals Old Paper World Map - 24 inches x 19 inches - Peel and Stick Removable Graphic
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