25 Ancient Maps That Make Modern Ones Look Very Boring

Published October 13, 2015
Updated October 14, 2015

Ancient Maps Heart Earth

Maps weren’t always sourced from the likes of Google or Apple. In fact, maps weren’t even always printed on paper. Whether etched into brass, carved into tomb ceilings, or drawn onto deerskins, ancient maps show us not merely how different our ancestors’ technology and knowledge were, but how differently they saw the world.

Sure, the ancients knew little or nothing of the New World and thought there was a massive southern continent there to balance out the lands of the north. And sure, even if the ancients were aware of the whole globe, they didn’t have the tools to accurately survey it. But the differences between modern maps and ancient maps are far deeper than that.

Today, maps are, for the most part, strictly representational: they depict the earth as it is in factually accurate geopolitical terms. But as recently as a few hundred years ago, maps were often more loosely expressive, informed to a greater extent by spirituality and art than by science.

With these 25 ancient maps, look back on a time when many may have thought the world was flat, but the maps, in every sense of the word, were not.

 

Ancient Maps Star Fresco
This eight-rayed star fresco from Teleilat, Ghassul, dates to the middle of the fourth millennium B.C. and might be the oldest cosmological map in existence. According to a leading theory, the inner circle is the known world, surrounded by an ocean, a second world, another ocean, with the eight points representing celestial islands.

Ancient Maps Fra Mauro
The Fra Mauro map, named after its creator, is often considered the height of medieval cartography. Created in 1459, the map marks the end of cartography based on religion or tradition, instead embracing reason and fact, including input from the likes of Marco Polo and the Portuguese explorers in Africa.

Ancient Maps Yorkshire Peat
This 1400s map of Inclesmoor, Yorkshire, holds a surprising backstory: it was created to settle a dispute between Saint Mary's Abbey and the Duchy of Lancaster over nothing other than the “rights to pasture and peat” in the area.

Ancient Maps Persian Sky
You’re looking at an astrological map of the heavens on the night of April 25, 1384, the birthdate of Timurid Prince Iskandar. This horoscope, created in 1411, serves as an extraordinary example of the Timurid Dynasty’s advanced publishing capabilities.

Ancient Maps Northern Constellations
This planispheric map charting northern constellations and the metaphorical figures assigned to them comes from Indian astronomer Durgashankara Pathaka, who wrote it at an unknown point prior to 1839.

Ancient Maps East At Top
This ancient map might throw modern readers for a loop: It puts the East at the top of the map, reminding everyone that direction is relative. For the Islamic geographer behind this 13th century map, Ibn Sa'id, it was a natural choice to feature his home country front and center.

Ancient Maps Sultaniye
Soltaniyeh, the ancient capital of the Mongol Ilkhanid Dynasty, is now noted as an UNESCO World Heritage Site for its stellar, still-standing examples of Persian and Islamic architecture. The map above, created in the 1400s, depicts the ruins of the city walls alongside a beautiful new city, along with plants and wildlife.

Ancient Maps Self Portrait
From the History of Cartography itself: “This cornerpiece from one of two atlases by Pietro Vesconte dated 1318 shows a mapmaker working on a chart. The legend above the vignette reads, ‘Petrus Vesconte of Genoa made this map in Venice, A.D. 1318,’ and it is tempting to suppose that the portrait is of Vesconte himself.”

Ancient Maps Brass Globe
This 1571 globe from western India doubles as an engraved brass container that nevertheless features the entire northern and southern hemispheres as accurately any other maps from that era.

Ancient Maps Jiangxi
This detail from a 1700s map of China’s Jiangxi Province shows off stunningly blue mountain peaks.

Ancient Maps China Hemisphere
Created in China in the 1790s, this map captures the entire Eastern hemisphere.

Ancient Maps China Earth
This mid-1700s Chinese map of the world features an inner continent surrounded by a sea holding fantasy lands and mountains, themselves surrounded by a fictional outer ring of land. The trees to the far east and west mark the areas from which the sun and moon were assumed to rise and set. Data on the mythical lands was drawn from the Shanhai jing, a collection of Chinese myths and fables dating back to the 4th century B.C.

Ancient Maps Japan From Above
Artist Kuwagata Keisai was the first to paint an aerial view of Japan, as seen in this 1804 map.

Ancient Maps Tomb
This ancient map charting constellations amid the Milky Way is notable for its medium: It forms the ceiling of a Chinese tomb from the 4-6th century Northern Wei dynasty. It’s also the earliest surviving portrayal of the entire breadth of the visible sky.

Ancient Map Rainbow Universe
This late-1800s Burmese painting depicts the entire universe. The large shapes are continents, the smaller ones are sub-continents, and the whole scene is capped with a rainbow-colored rim surrounding the universe itself. Like all cosmological maps, this one relies on heavy speculation that blurs the line between science and myth.

Ancient Maps Burma China Border
This 1889 map of the Nam Mao River covers a border dispute between China (in bright tempura red) and Burma (in yellow). According to The History of Cartography, the details are “remarkably accurate.”

Ancient Maps Deerskin
Skiri Native Americans created this star chart on a tanned antelope hide or deerskin, found Pawnee, Oklahoma, in 1906. That row of small dots across the middle represents the Milky Way, which was thought to be a path used by departing spirits.

Ancient Maps Cosmic Fertility
This diagram maps fertility on a cosmic scale, as depicted by a member of the Tucano people, a group indigenous to South America. The coded map is designed to highlight the natural order of the world, as understood by the Tucano.

Ancient Maps Coastline Brazil
The Brazilian coastline is mapped out on this page, which also provides handy guidelines on how to enter and leave sea ports. It’s from a Portuguese roteiro, or nautical guide, and depicts the coast near Porto Seguro, where explorer Pedro Álvares Cabral first reached South America in 1500.

Ancient Maps 1500s Oval World
One of just two known colored editions, this 1508 copy of Francesco Rosselli’s Oval World Map was one of the first to incorporate the Americas following Christopher Columbus' voyages.

Ancient Maps Fortress
This scene of the Fortress of Malacca comes from António Bocarro’s 1635 O Livro Das Plantas, a military map book for Portuguese India.

Ancient Maps Landscape
This aerial 1537 map of the city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber (in modern-day Germany) adds elements of landscape painting to the usual cartography.

Ancient Maps Heart Earth
This heart-shaped Earth in this 1536 watercolor-and-wood-engraving by French cartographer Oronce Fine isn’t entirely accurate: He included a massive southern continent, Terra Australis, which was hypothesized to counterbalance the northern continents.

Ancient Maps Siberia
The early-1700s ethnographic map of Siberia shown here charts the region’s archaic tribal boundaries in a colorful patchwork.

Ancient Maps Java
This mid-1800s map of central Java, Indonesia is presumed to be of Dutch origin, designed to track revenue and labor. The two dark circles to the right denote volcanoes.

All maps sourced from The University of Chicago's History of Cartography.

 

For more illuminating maps, check out our collection of U.S. census maps to upend your assumptions about our country as well as these 33 maps that explain the U.S. better than any textbook.

All That's Interesting
All That's Interesting is a Brooklyn-based digital publisher that seeks out the stories to illuminate the past, present, and future.