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The process of cartography in a low-tech world?

Discussion in 'Research' started by kaiser_vonhabsburg, Jun 21, 2019.

  1. kaiser_vonhabsburg

    kaiser_vonhabsburg Acolyte

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    A question that's been bugging me for a while: what was the actual process that ancient cartographers went through when making maps? Did they personally go out and attempt to draw maps based on their observations or was it based on the observations of someone else? Did they assign scales to these maps as we do today? Now, these may seem like glaringly obvious questions, but as the saying goes: "There's no such thing as a stupid question".

    Regards and thanks in advance,

    -The Kaiser
     
  2. From research I did for this in a low-tech world, it seemed to be that early mapmaking, that is to say, the maps that still survive today, were collaborative efforts by many people and the final results rendered over time. You can see this in some of the early atlases in which one map is almost a direct copy of the work of another, earlier version, perhaps updated and added to.

    Going back further, maps made in ancient Babylonia (on clay tablets) are thought to have been drawn with accurate surveying techniques and depicting topographical features like hills and valleys and included labelled features. I'm not sure of the methods, but the results speak for themselves.

    As for scale, as far back as the year 801 the Hai Nei Hua Yi Tu (Map of both Chinese and Barbarian Peoples within the (Four) Seas) was created by the Tang Dynasty to show China as well as its Central Asian colonies. The map was 30 feet by 33 feet and used a grid system with a highly accurate scale. My guess would be that empires had the luxury of a lot of free manpower and resources to figure this out.

    Greek map makers drew maps that were comprised of the combined efforts of explorer observations and mathematical calculations. Cartography, during the Age of Exploration, saw cartographers, merchants, and explorers all working to create maps that depicted the new areas of the world that they visited. Each using their own methods and charting abilities and then combining them to create the larger view. Along the way achievements were made that we have refined and carried forward, like the 15th century, Nicholas Germanus invention of the Donis map projection with its equidistant parallels and meridians that converged toward the poles.

    I recently saw something about what is believed to be a map of sorts, inscribed on a bone found in the Czech Republic. Of course, like history itself, many maps were created around empire and political persuasion. Empires often depicted themselves as the center of the world and, undoubtedly, as the larger part of it. He who makes the maps defines the scale. :)

    As for scale, I'm not sure about the (known) world maps of that era but there were scaled maps depicting more localized areas.

    This article is an interesting and informative read about a modern day specialist in cartography finding his way into dissecting the making of ancient maps.

    Hope that helps!
     
  3. kaiser_vonhabsburg

    kaiser_vonhabsburg Acolyte

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    Thanks, that helps a lot!
     
  4. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    worth noting: no few of the early maps were 'line maps' - distances and directions between cities or other locations with little other detail. 'Go here. Pass through the mountains. Turn there.'
     
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  5. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Until the 1930s you could get maps that unrolled to show you the major road you were travelling on. As they were only about 3-4 inches wide they didn't have much of the countryside on them but they'd help you get [say] from London to Newcastle.
     
  6. Ahh I've never heard of those! I love that idea. Little traveler scroll maps. I expect these may have showed towns and estates all along the route? I've seen Canal Company maps in the UK ( circa late 1700's) depicting canal routes and land closes/tracts that were numbered along its path but not actual traveling road maps. Very cool!
     
  7. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    Yes, the same basic idea. We had one when I was a kid but it got lost before I realised how strange it was. I can remember that the road would break and start again if it would have gone off the side of the paper. I'm fairly sure it had pubs and RAC call boxes marked but not much else.
     
  8. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    The information about Babylonian mapping surprised me, so I went looking. Found this
    Babylonian Map of the World - Wikipedia
    which accords with my understanding of ancient maps--to wit, they had little detail and were highly abstract. Another example are the T-O maps, which you can read about here. T and O map - Wikipedia

    I'm hesitant to say there was any trade called cartography in either the ancient or the medieval world. Certainly the word itself was not used, nor do I know of any reference to the craft of map making. Most maps I know about were more symbolic and didactic than practical. Sailors used portolani (not all of which were illustrated). In German they were called Seebuecher. Land-based versions can be found as well: they basically were a kind of journal or narrative. Go here, turn there, avoid this. With extremely unreliable indications of distance.

    For the most part, you learned how to get from say Paris to Milan by going from Paris to Milan in the company of someone else. Even that information was chancy because routes could change in a trice--a war, a fallen bridge, a new toll, or other changes might send the traveler miles out of his way onto unknown roads. Sea travel was a bit more reliable in that regard, but of course any one sailing could encounter storms or pirates--it didn't change your route but it sure could change how you got there!

    If anyone does know of an example of cartography as a craft or profession at any time prior to about 1450, I should be glad to know the reference.
     
  9. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    That'd be the Romans. The world maps have some serious distortions, though I wonder if they weren't grappling with the curvature of the earth. The shield map is pretty interesting. The Tabula Peutingeriana is one of the line maps I was yakking about earlier.

    Ancient Maps: How Did the Romans See the World? | History Hit
     
  10. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

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    I think I'm wandering into quibble territory here, but please bear with me. The article calls Strabo a cartographer. I would not. He's often called a geographer, but even that is misleading, imho. Strabo was an aristocrat who traveled widely and who did indeed write a book often called Geographica, but as far as I know he never drew maps, so that lets him out of "cartographer" altogether. And he also wrote at least one history. Chances are he wrote poetry as well (what young man doesn't?), but he's not called a poet. The quibble is this: neither cartographer nor geographer was a profession.

    The sense I got from the OP was that the question concerned a profession. When ancient cartographers went through a process in making maps, that implies a regular occupation. The replies seemed to reinforce the impression that there was such a trade, but there wasn't. At least, not so far as I know--which is why I invited correction.

    People did draw maps. We don't know what process they used, but it's highly likely that it varied from one individual to the next, as there's no evidence of geography (still less cartography) as a school subject, nor of any guild or other formal point of training. The speculation in that article concerns one particular drawer-of-a-map (oh, go ahead and call him a cartographer), and the speculation sounds reasonable enough.

    Portolani, otoh, were highly pragmatic works. We don't know the process for those either, but all indirect evidence says that they were created by sailors, probably by navigators themselves, who maybe drew them themselves and maybe paid to have them drawn or maybe even had a shipmate who could draw. The sketches of the coasts are quite precise, but they are also quite limited--generally a drawing shows only what one might see with the naked eye when standing off a particular location. The few maps we have are more abstract. This all changed pretty dramatically in the second half of the 15th century, when we start not only to get better maps but to get them in larger quantities as well. Sea maps tended to be more precise than land maps, for quite a long time.

    There's one area of mapping that I've wondered about but never have seen a reference: property maps. We have documents going well back into the Middle Ages where a property is described in words, but I don't know the history of maps that would delineate property boundaries. They must have come along at some point, and they must have been both important and much contested (at least initially). At a guess, they came along late enough that we might also learn something of the process of those map makers. But that's about all I've got.

    Anyway, done with quibbles.
     
  11. Insolent Lad

    Insolent Lad Sage

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    An whole different approach to creating maps would be the Polynesian 'Stick Maps.' Not distances and coastlines but a rather sophisticated method of mapping the ocean itself in terms of swells and currents.
     
  12. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    quibble away - though I submit that 'geography' was about more than physical features. (I'd also submit that the distinctions you make were ill defined in ancient times, thus possible to use interchangeably into today's terminology)

    My venerable copy of 'Mathematics for the Millions' argues that the ancient Egyptians and neighboring cultures refined geometry in part because of this issue - precisely defining property boundaries, especially after floods.
     
  13. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I'd have the Roman Army as a good bet. They may not have been called cartographers but there had to be some people able to map fairly well for the civil engineering projects they undertook. I think scale comes into it too. Up to a few miles and you can probably guess distances and relationships and use geometry and surveying to make sure. This would be useful for most people, but not on a national scale.
     
  14. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    Pretty much:

    Gromatici - Wikipedia
     
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