Monday, March 6, 2017

Off the Edge of the Map

“You’re off the edge of the map, mate! Here there be monsters.” Hector Barbosa - Pirates of the Caribbean – Curse of the Black Pearl


Not quite right. It should be a chart – a sea map. And why would a place that had not yet be described on paper necessarily contain monsters? The answers lie in the history of cartography, the art (and science) of map making.

Cartography is an old skill. No one knows quite how old. Some cave paintings may be early maps – or they may not. It’s hard to tell. The Greeks and Romans certainly practiced map making. And Chinese examples predate western ones.

The earliest maps could be surprisingly exact. A map of ancient lands near what is now Kirkuk shows a use of accurate surveying techniques. Parts are labeled, the four directions are shown, 12 hectares of land belonging to person named Azala is marked in cuneiform letters. Scholars believe the map may be as many as 10,000 years old.   

But the oldest map intending to show the whole word is mostly symbolic. It is Babylonian, and not quite 3,000 years old, and omits Persia and Egypt, places well known to the Babylonians.  Its round shape was a symbolic image.

Maps like this convinced Alexander the Great that
he had conquered the Whole World. 

The ancient Greeks knew the area near their own city-states very well, but their ideas of the shape of the world were bounded more by philosophy than geography.  Greek philosophers believed that the world was a flat disc, with land in the center and water all around the edges.  When Eratosthenes of Cyrene realized that the earth was a sphere, calculated its circumference, and figured out the tilt of the sphere’s axis, things opened up.



Medieval map makers followed the ancient Greek practice of using philosophy instead of science to create maps. In an age when most people didn’t travel far, this was easier to get away with. But when Columbus discovered the New World (I still use this phrase, because he hadn’t known it was there before) two things radically changed. World maps needed to include a lot more territory, and they were suddenly in hot demand.

Spain and Portugal, heirs to the Islamic scholars who had held territory in the region for centuries, became the gold standard of map making. But even the very best maps were trying to describe a lot of territory that wasn’t well known.

Here are dragons

 The When people didn’t know, they sometimes used the romantic Latin phrase terra incognita, which simply means “place we don’t know about.”

Blank places on maps were also artistically undesirable. When the map maker was describing the true outer limits of European exploration, and the lines just ended in some regions, the map looked incomplete. (Because it was.) So, relying on the art of cartography, map makers offered up pictures of exotic fish and animals.



The earliest phrase that is somewhat like “here there be monsters” was “here are dragons.” This phrase only appears on 2 historic maps. The location of the first, form about 1503, may be an accurate description of what was there, since Komodo dragons – real creatures that will really eat your face – lived nearby. The other “map” is in fact the earliest known globe. Made from 2 halves of an ostrich egg, the globe is believed to date from 1504.

The egg globe

 The standard form for Western map-makers was “Here are lions.” The phrase decorated many spots where lions don’t live, but the meaning was pretty clear – bad stuff here, folks! Travel carefully!

Frightening images may have been included on maps to impress purchasers who would be staying at home while others sailed. Or they may have celebrated the bravery of those who went to sea. Exotic images may have seemed informative, or indicated that the map-maker was familiar not only with the shape of the world, but also with its inhabitants.

Art on maps also made them beautiful. In an age when the rich displayed their wealth with elaborate homes and clothing, ornate maps would seem more valuable. Gen a choice of a plain map or one with decorations, the more richly adorned piece of paper probably seemed of offer more authority.



By 1600, the world map was at least roughly filled in, and details of water depth and location of settlements began to overshadow decorative elements. By the mid 1600’s Dutch cartographers were publishing atlases with detailed drawings of the large land masses of the world. Science drove out mythology.

But the edge of the map still calls us. Now it may be Mars, or the moons of Jupiter, or the stars themselves. Will we ever meet the monsters? Maybe. Or maybe they are simply the dark places in our own imagination.

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