Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome

Ancient Perspectives: Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome

by Richard J. A. Talbert

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Ancient Perspectives encompasses a vast arc of space and time—Western Asia to North Africa and Europe from the third millennium BCE to the fifth century CE—to explore mapmaking and worldviews in the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In each society, maps served as critical economic, political, and personal tools, but there was little consistency in how and why they were made. Much like today, maps in antiquity meant very different things to different people.

Ancient Perspectives presents an ambitious, fresh overview of cartography and its uses. The seven chapters range from broad-based analyses of mapping in Mesopotamia and Egypt to a close focus on Ptolemy’s ideas for drawing a world map based on the theories of his Greek predecessors at Alexandria. The remarkable accuracy of Mesopotamian city-plans is revealed, as is the creation of maps by Romans to support the proud claim that their emperor’s rule was global in its reach. By probing the instruments and techniques of both Greek and Roman surveyors, one chapter seeks to uncover how their extraordinary planning of roads, aqueducts, and tunnels was achieved.   Even though none of these civilizations devised the means to measure time or distance with precision, they still conceptualized their surroundings, natural and man-made, near and far, and felt the urge to record them by inventive means that this absorbing volume reinterprets and compares.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226789408
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 02/14/2014
Series: The Kenneth Nebenzahl Jr. Lectures in the History of Cartography
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 272
File size: 31 MB
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About the Author

Richard J. A. Talbert is the William Rand Kenan, Jr., Professor of History and Classics and founder of the Ancient World Mapping Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is the author or editor of numerous books, including the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World and Rome’s World: The Peutinger Map Reconsidered.

Read an Excerpt

Ancient Perspectives

Maps and Their Place in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece & Rome
By Richard J. A. Talbert

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-78937-8

Chapter One

The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia

Francesca Rochberg

I. Introduction

The earliest examples of historical maps are traceable to the ancient Near East (fig. 1.1), where first Sumerians and Akkadians, and later Babylonians and Assyrians, developed the landscape of Mesopotamia by building houses, temples, palaces, cities, and states. Sumerian and Babylonian iconographic representation of features of the land and the built environment is known for the entire history of the cuneiform writing tradition, from the early third millennium to nearly the beginning of our era in Late Babylonian texts. Because of the diversity of the source material, mapmaking in ancient Mesopotamia has not been studied as a thematically unified corpus. The aim here is to afford a general overview and to make some comments on the various Mesopotamian cultural contexts for mapmaking. Completeness has not been a primary objective. Because of the sheer number of examples it is not possible to discuss each and every map on cuneiform tablets. The following overview will move from the large (or local) scale to the small (or global) scale, beginning with evidence for plans of houses and other buildings, then proceeding to field surveys, city maps, regional maps, a map of the world, and finally the establishment of a spatial organization in the heavenly cosmos. The discussion will therefore not be strictly chronological, but each section will proceed from earlier to later examples.

Even in the prehistory of the Near East, a "map" from the Neolithic site Catal Hüyük in central Anatolia attests to social awareness of the inhabited place and its relation to its geographic surrounds. Found in 1963 by the archaeologist James Mellaart during the excavation of Çatal Hüyük near Ankara, Turkey, this 3 m red-brown polychrome wall painting, radio carbon dated to approximately 6200, appears to represent the town itself with eighty rectangular buildings of varying sizes clustered in a terraced town landscape (fig. 1.2 and plates 1a and 1b). Mellaart noted the similarity of the representation of the houses to the actual excavated structures found at the site, that is, rows of houses built one beside the other with no space between them. The wall painting shows an active double-peaked volcano rising over the town, likely to be the 3,200 m stratovolcano Mount Hasan, which is visible from Catal Huyuk. Lava is depicted fl owing down its slopes and exploding in the air above the town. A cloud of ash and smoke completes the scene.

While not a map in the sense of a surveyed and measured image of some part of the earth's surface, the image of the town with its local mountain spewing molten rock is a representation of a phenomenon that one can well imagine was actually experienced. In the context of other prehistoric European maps, Catherine Delano-Smith (1982) speculated that the representation of this geographic scene most likely had a ritual function. The map was not meant as a projection of a landscape upon a measured framework or even as a lasting representation, as the walls of the dwellings at Çatal Hüyük were regularly replastered and painted over. As Delano-Smith put it (1982, 18), "If villages and fields were depicted in it, they would have been associated less with the 'objective' recording of a spatial distribution for purposes of direction or reference than with invoking the favours of the controlling forces of those aspects of life these topographical features were used to represent or with attempts to appease them." Of course, such interpretations are conjectural in the absence of contemporary written evidence. As will be clear in this presentation, however, even in the presence of contemporary written evidence, the nature and motivations of mapmaking in the ancient Near East are not always easy to assess. The Çatal Hüyük map, while certainly not a map in the familiar sense, shares aspects with other ancient Near Eastern maps which reflect a desire to represent, for whatever reason, real aspects of the visible terrain of the immediate environment.

One of the functions of ancient Near Eastern maps is the representation of architectural or topographical order imposed on the physical landscape, or the idea of the physical landscape, both terrestrial and celestial. Mesopotamian maps do not guide the traveler from one place to another, but rather represent those ordered features imposed by human beings on the natural world, either physically, such as the temple, the city, agricultural lands, roads, and canals, or philosophically, as in notions of a world inclusive of known and unknown regions shown in diagrammatic form on the one surviving Babylonian world map. They are maps in the sense that a map is, as defined by Denis Wood (1992, 122), "an icon, a visual analogue of a geographic landscape ... the product of a number of deliberate, repetitive, symbolic gestures ... formal items—the discrete elements of iconic coding ... shaped within the space of the map ... or preformed and imposed on the map, activating formal symbolism and formal metaphor as well."

This definition of the map as an icon, and mapmaking as a process of developing iconic codes for representing topographical features, is useful for pulling together disparate sets of evidence that can be viewed together within a coherent framework of "mapmaking" in the ancient Near East. The features of the topography that eventually warranted representation, such as houses, temples, agricultural fields, and cities, distinguish undeveloped land from property. Mesopotamian maps were not exercises in the objective rendering of geography or the unbuilt landscape. One might say that land was not mapped; rather, property was. The reasons that made different kinds of property worthy of being mapped varied from economic to religious and cosmic.

Practical geography, on the other hand, is represented in literary form, in itineraries attested from Old Babylonian times up to Neo-Assyrian, that is, from the eighteenth to the seventh centuries. Their interpretation and their use for reconstructing ancient landscapes is fraught with difficulty, because the identification of toponyms and their relative distances from one another is often uncertain. The itineraries do often provide distances, given in months and days, or, in the case of the later examples, in the unit of distance and time called beru (danna), which we translate as the "double-hour,"? and which was also adopted for use in measuring stellar and other celestial distances in astronomical texts. Indeed, the beru was the pervasive measure of both distance and time in celestial terms, as it was a one-twelfth subdivision of the nearly constant unit of the day (ud), the interval between successive sunsets. The celestial "double-hours" stem from the correlation made between the length measure of twelve terrestrial beru and the fixed time measure of one day (ud). In view of the term's Sumerian etymology— KASKAL.GÍD = danna, "long road"—the original length measure of the beru referred to the distance traversable on foot in the time it would take for the sun to travel thirty degrees across the sky, or one-sixth the length of daylight (assuming an equinoctial day of twelve daylight hours). The distance of one beru would then correspond roughly to a two hours' march. Such a correlation between terrestrial distances and the division into twelfths of the "day," or rotation of the sky, is, in a concrete sense, geodetic.

Not only on earth but in heaven too, structural order was imposed by the transposition and projection of terrestrial features of the built and cultivated environments from earth to heaven. The horizon was the "cattle pen," and the heavenly bodies the cattle and sheep that followed their orderly, or, in the case of planets, somewhat less orderly, paths (Rochberg 2010). The religious text Enuma Eliš, also known as the Babylonian Creation Epic, uses this double metaphor for the gods as both celestial bodies and livestock when it says, "Let him (the creator god Marduk) assign the regular motions of the stars of heaven; let him herd all the gods like sheep" (Enuma Eliš VII 131). In addition, the regular paths followed by the stars across the sky from their risings to their settings were compared to furrows of a field. The fixed stars were also attached to specifically named "roads" serving to mark their directions, and the moon too moved against the starry background along what was called "The road of the moon" (harran Sin).

Other units familiar from the texts of land surveyors, the cubit or "forearm" and finger, are also found in astronomical contexts where distance between celestial bodies is in question. Despite a dearth of iconographic representation of the celestial roads and the arrangement of constellations within them, there survives noniconographic textual evidence making reference to double-hours, cubits, and fingers (beru, ammatu, and ubanu, respectively) within the heavenly roads or with respect to other devices for fixing celestial positions, such as the ecliptical stars. These references show that such imagery and its associated metrology had currency throughout the cuneiform tradition of astral sciences. Celestial mapmaking, as we would recognize it, is not well represented, despite the application of units of time-distance such as berus and degrees to the measurement of relative positions of celestial objects. Although the surviving iconographic evidence for "mapping" the heavens is extremely limited (see III.2 below), a practical astronomy that systematically organized, schematized, and predicted celestial phenomena shows that the celestial landscape was quite well "mapped," in fact.

Extant cuneiform maps cannot be considered to constitute a coherent tradition of cartography in which a continuous evolution of mapping techniques or even conceptions of the map itself are evident over time. Nonetheless, various aspects of the ancient Mesopotamian physical world, both terrestrial and celestial, are represented on cuneiform tablets over a considerable time span. These representations are eminently classifiable as cartographic, even according to the definition of professional cartography by the British Cartographic Society as "the science and technology of analyzing and interpreting geographic relationships, and communicating the results by means of maps" (Harley 2001, 151).

Mesopotamian maps have not always been readily incorporated into the history of cartography. In older scholarship resistance to including them can be found even with regard to the best-known example, the so-called Babylonian mappa-mundi from the later eighth or early seventh century. In his introduction to the 1959 reissue of Edward Bunbury's 1883 History of Ancient Geography among the Greeks and Romans from the Earliest Ages till the Fall of the Roman Empire, William Stahl characterized this map as a crude representation (p. iii): "Before the time of the ancient Greeks, geography and cartography were in a primitive state. The early Babylonians, for example, had developed remarkable precision and skill in observing and predicting the orderly movements of celestial bodies, but their conceptions of the earth were what one might expect of a relatively isolated people. A Babylonian clay tablet ... depicts the earth as a circular plane, bisected by the Euphrates River, with the capital city of Babylon located near the center and a few adjacent countries bordering upon an encircling ocean." Stahl's condescension takes it for granted that the map was intended as a direct and accurate rendering of its subject, and that its maker was a scientist with goals of precision and accuracy. However, such a position assumes criteria for mapmaking that will not be met by most ancient Near Eastern exemplars.

Recent cartographic historiography has revised the concept of what a map is (or what it is to make a map) and has consequently opened the way to consideration of maps as representations not only of the environment as a physical object, but also of notions of the environment, imagined, abstracted, or ideal realms of the world beyond the concrete features of the immediate experienced terrain (MacEachren 1995, 255– 56). In particular, Brian Harley has articulated again and again the value of reassessing the history of maps and redefining cartography in accordance with evidence of its practice rather than by a priori modern criteria. As a result, he uncovered a deep level of humanity in maps, ancient and modern, and showed how maps invariably reflect culture and subjectivity: "As mediators between an inner mental world and an outer physical world, maps are fundamental tools helping the human mind make sense of its universe at various scales. Moreover, they are undoubtedly one of the oldest forms of human communication. There has probably always been a mapping impulse in human consciousness, and the mapping experience—involving the cognitive mapping of space—undoubtedly existed long before the physical artifacts we now call maps" (Harley and Woodward 1987, 1). What follows will summarize the evidence for maps and mapmaking in historical ancient Mesopotamia. Both maps that represent ideas of the landscape and those that represent its actual features are included; the line separating these is not always easy to define.

II. The Terrestrial Landscape


II.1.a. House and Plot Plans. At the most localized level, there survive tablets on which plans for houses and urban plots are drawn, accompanied by various kinds of inscription. House plans, showing walls and doorways, come from a wide chronological span, from the Old Akkadian and Ur III to Old Babylonian and Neo-Babylonian periods (ca. 2350– 400). Early examples are also known from third-millennium Girsu, although it is difficult to identify with any certainty what kind of buildings they represent. A well-preserved house plan from Ur III Umma shows dimensions in cubits, probably in reference to the dimensions of the rooms themselves.

The ground plans of houses etched into clay tablets show walls by parallel lines, and in what seems to be a real representation of the floor plan they indicate the placement of doorways (see fig. 1.3). Sometimes doors are indicated by a pair of cuneiform wedges as though to mark a break in the wall, or even by hatch marks perpendicular to the wall. One Old Babylonian building plan—dated to the reign of Abi-Ešuh and inscribed with the description "plan (literally 'drawing') of a house of Sippar-Jahrurum"—includes labels for the various rooms and parts of the building, such as doors (KÁ = babum), under the stairs (šapal simmilti, written GIŠ.KUN4), a reception room (PA.PAH = papahum), and a barbershop (É ŠU.I = bit gallabim). These indications would suggest that the building had some sort of public function, though it is apparently not a temple. Such labeling of rooms, or parts of a building, is also to be seen in an earlier plan from third-millennium Girsu: it mentions a courtyard (KISAL = kisallu), reception room (PA.PAH = papahum), and living quarters (KI.TUŠ = šubtu), and gives the length and width of rooms measured in cubits (KÙŠ) and ropes (NINDA.DU). An Ur III tablet from Nippur offers a further example of a building plan in which rooms are labeled: it represents a building containing a kitchen (É.MU), a washroom (É.LUH), a weaving room (É.UŠ.BAR.RA), and an archive, or "tablet room" (É.DUB).

Early house plans, such as from the Old Akkadian to the Old Babylonian periods, may well represent sketches, or scribal exercises, rather than true blueprints (see figs. 1.4 and 1.5). In the Neo-Babylonian period similar schematic house plans exist from the Nappahu family archive (Baker 2004, 16). In addition to these documents, other Neo-Babylonian tablets, many of which are from Babylon during the reign of Darius I (522–486), preserve surveyed plans of urban plots in records of a land registry for both plots and fields, perhaps for the purpose of taxation. They do not show house plans, but merely the plot itself in relation to its surrounding streets or other properties; they provide measured boundaries and a total surface area of the property, a four-sided single plot with an occasional adjacent plot represented in addition. The houses so described in these plans are small (under 200 sq m) as compared against actually excavated houses. Various explanations are possible: they may have been additional rental properties, or the small-sized properties were only thus on the plan, whereas the actual area formed part of a larger house unit, not divided physically (Baker 2004, 62).


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Table of Contents



by Richard J. A. Talbert

1. The Expression of Terrestrial and Celestial Order in Ancient Mesopotamia

by Francesca Rochberg

2. From Topography to Cosmos: Ancient Egypt’s Multiple Maps

by David O’Connor

3. Mapping the World: Greek Initiatives from Homer to Eratosthenes

by Georgia L. Irby

4. Ptolemy’s Geography: Mapmaking and the Scientific Enterprise

by Alexander Jones

5. Greek and Roman Surveying and Surveying Instruments

by Michael Lewis

6. Urbs Roma to Orbis Romanus: Roman Mapping on the Grand Scale

by Richard J. A. Talbert

7. Putting the World in Order: Mapping in Roman Texts

by Benet Salway




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