Early maps proved difficult to follow

| October 2005

  • EarlyMaps.jpg
    MEDIEVAL WORLDVIEW: European diagrams from the Middle Ages showed the world as a 'T' in an 'O.' At the top was Asia, with Europe and Africa located below. The three continents were shown separated by water, and circled by it as well.
  • wildrose.jpg
    WIND ROSE: This detail from a map made circa 1639 of Santiago Bay, Cuba, shows a decorative wind rose. The compass rose on maps today is a combination of the old wind rose and the modern compass.
    Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division/National Library of the Netherlands

  • EarlyMaps.jpg
  • wildrose.jpg

How would you like traveling with a map showing things out of proportion and inaccurately placed? That's the kind of map our ancestors used - when they had maps at all.

Maps are a reflection of mapmakers and the times in which they live. Drawing an accurate map requires knowledge of the world - something ancient mapmakers had in limited supply. What information they had wasn't always shared, so each mapmaker drew maps based on personal knowledge or experience. What they didn't know, they often made up.

The most important location - usually their hometown - was drawn in large size and generally placed in the center of the map. Faraway cities were often drawn as tiny, randomly placed specks, if they were included at all.

First stabs at accuracy

The first accurate maps were sea charts. Although distance was important, direction was critical. The heavens were divided into four quarters, and the four primary winds were believed to blow from those quarters. The winds came to be used to determine direction, and were represented as 'wind roses.'

A wind rose simply showed the direction of the prevailing winds for a location. They were constructed by drawing a circle with the winds radiating out from it. The compass rose on maps today is a combination of the old wind rose and the modern compass.

The word map comes from the Latin word mappa, which originally meant 'signal cloth.' Military directions were drawn on the signal cloths, and eventually the drawings themselves were called mappa. Another Latin word, mundi, which meant world, was combined with mappa, to form mappemundi. That was shortened to 'map' in modern usage.

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