technology/unit11/Documents Never Go Away111.html

Maps are a good way to evaluate how a culture understands its place in the world because that’s exactly what a map is for. It tries to answer the question “where am I?” Later on, maps would try and answer questions like “where am I going?” and “how can I get back?” but, initially, maps were an attempt to simply locate one’s self.

This is evidenced by the fact that the earliest maps we can find aren’t maps of the world. They’re maps of the sky. Consider this Sumerian Star Chart from around 3300 BC


It’s not just a map. It’s an astrolabe. Very early on people saw themselves in relation to all the other things they could see. They could see the sky. And so technology developed from the information they could gather.

Interestingly, and perhaps paradoxically, everyone had to start all over when they decided to make maps of the world, much of which they couldn’t see or didn’t even know about. The Greeks saw the world as a disk, not because they believed that it was flat as much as they read about it in Homer’s poems and this was as good a place to start as any. Distances were measured in how many days it took to sail or march from place to place.


By the Middle Ages, Europeans had become very practical about maps. Look at this map used during the Crusades. The map is designed with religious considerations in mind. East is at the top. Jerusalem in the middle. That’s where everyone wanted to go anyway.


And this view of the world, with Jerusalem in the middle and the most obvious reference point of the time, the sun rising, at the top, was very much the way the world looked to people. Take a look at a map from The Enchiridion by Byrhtferth of Ramsey Abbey created around 1000AD. Not mistaking where Jerusalem is on this map:


The Vikings did something similar. They needed to know the coastline of Europe, not the interior. They were planning on robbing and pillaging all week and they needed to get back on the weekends. So you shorelines are detailed. The interior doesn’t matter.


What’s really quite strange about all this is that there are no real grids. The map with the lines on it indicated prevailing winds, not locations. People had no real idea how far away something was. At least they didn’t have any objective measure of distance.

And then the Europeans discovered Ptolemy. He had a keen interest in geography and prepared what might be the first map of the world. Here’s a 16th century interpretation of what his map looked like.


It’s likely to be an inaccurate interpretation but it works for our purposes because it shows two very critical elements. It has a grid superimposed on it and Ptolemy’s original very likely showed something similar. Secondly, it didn’t show much of the southern hemisphere. More on that later.

Now, let’s go back to the Renaissance man we talked about. Toscanelli, who you ran across in Burke’s book, was a classic renaissance man. He was interested in architecture, art, history, mathematics, astronomy and, not surprisingly, cartography. Once again, this didn’t make him a renaissance man. What did that was his ability to put together elements of all these disciplines and create a new idea from the mess using, among other tools, the syllogism. He had a keen understanding of Ptolemy’s mathematics and almost certainly was familiar with Ptolemy’s map. With some clever calculations, he figured out how big China was likely to be, added it to his map of Europe, the Middle East and Africa, applied a grid that people were finding useful for perspective painting, and reasoned that it would be easier to get to the orient going west rather than east.

We don’t have Toscanelli’s map but it would have looked something like this:


Of course there’s no America on the map and, based on the wildly exaggerated size of China he had to work with, the Far East coast of Japan is right about where the Bahamas are – exactly where Columbus landed using Toscanelli’s map.



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