Maps reflect our worldview—literally. Far from purely scientific instruments, they are almost always bound with history, mythology, and religion. A study of ancient maps reveals the shifting attitudes human have had toward themselves and their place in the universe.
Archaeologists at Spain’s Moli del Salt site discovered what may be a 13,800-year-old map. The schist slab features seven semi-circular etchings, which experts believed to be huts. The shape coincides with modern hunter-gatherer dwellings of the Kalahari Bushmen and Aboriginals of the Australian Outback. The number seven reflects a typical population size. If true, this would be the earliest image of a human habitation ever discovered. Anthropologists are thrilled by the idea that these huts are a spatial representation of social structure. All of the lines were carved with the same tool at the same time—suggesting one individual captured what was in front of him at one moment.
The world’s oldest and largest unsolved jigsaw puzzle is a 2,200-year-old map of Rome. Carved during the reign of SeptimIus Severus between 203 and 211, the Forma Urbis Romae originally hung of a wall in the Temple of Piece. It contained every building, temple, shop, bath, and staircase in ancient Rome. It is composed of 150 marble tiles built to a scale of 1 to 240. The Forma Urbis Romae was ripped down—most likely to be used to make lime cement. Today, only 10 percent of the original map remains. The first pieces were rediscovered in 1562. A section recently discovered in Palazzo Maffei Marescotti allowed researchers to connect three chunks of the ancient puzzle. The newfound piece has shed new light on the present-day ghetto, an area which once dominated by the Circus Flaminius.
Archaeologists unearthed a set of what they believe are 5,000-year-old maps in Denmark. Covered with etchings of squares and lines, these 10 broken stones may be some of the oldest maps ever discovered. Researchers theorize that these symbolic representations of the terrain were used in Stone Age farmers’ fertility rituals. These “map stones” were discovered in an earthen wall enclosure on the Danish island of Bornholm. Experts have connected these “solar stones” with the Neolithic sun-worshiping religion. These newfound map stones are different. Their squares and lines evoke geographic elements—both man-made and natural. Many believe that these are “stylized maps” rather than navigational charts in the current sense.
A 3,000-year-old papyrus contains a map to vast mineral wealth in Egypt’s desolate eastern desert. The Turin Papyus contains such detail of Wadi Hammamat valley that it is considered the world’s first geological map. Fragments of the work were discovered and slowly pieced together between 1814 and 1821. Initially believed to be three separate scrolls, the ancient map was found in a tomb in Deir-el-Medina. The most modern reconstruction of the map comes from the 1990s. Experts date the scroll to the mid-12th century BC, around the reign of Ramsesses IV. Earlier maps have been discovered, but they are crude compared to the Turin Papyrus. The map contains no set scale but does contain text that acts like a modern map legend. It contains bekhen-stone quarries and gold mines The papyrus is so accurate that modern mineral hunters, like Aton Resources Inc. have relied on it to find fortune
A star map carved into Japan’s Kitora Tomb may be the world’s oldest astronomic chart. 68 constellations with gold leaf stars cloaks the ceiling. Three circles track the movement of celestial bodies—including the Sun. The pole star dominates the center. The detailed map depicts the horizon, equator, and star courses. This is not the first depiction of the night sky. Lascaux Cave contains a 17,300-year-old image of the subject. However, it lacks astronomical observations. Researchers noted that the sky depicted would have been observed hundreds of years before Kitora Tomb’s construction. However, estimates of the exact date vary between 120 BC and AD 520. Some believe that the knowledge came from Korea, despite depicting China.
Archaeologists discovered the oldest undisputed map on the bottom of an unbaked clay tablet from the sixth century BC. Dated to the Neo-Babylonian period, the chart contains an inscription revealing that it is a copy of an even earlier work. The map was uncovered in 1899, at the site of Sippar located 30 kilometers southwest of Baghdad. Much more sophisticated and accurate maps were available in Greece centuries after this chart. The construction reflects an intentionally conservative blend of geography, cosmology, and mythology. The map depicts the world as a disc surrounded by water. Seven mythical islands lie beyond and connect the earth to the heavens. Cuneiform text explains the mysterious beasts and heroes that inhabit these islands. Seven dots represent seven cities of the ancient world. A “Great Wall” symbolizes winter. The back of the tablet describes mythic beasts that inhabit the heavenly ocean. Experts believe these are constellations.