The mystery of the medieval maps

More evidence that our ancestors were not stupid:

Where and how did medieval mapmakers, apparently armed with no more than a compass, an hourglass and sets of sailing directions, develop stunningly accurate maps of southern Europe, the Black Sea and North African coastlines, as if they were looking down from a satellite, when no one had been higher than a treetop?

The earliest known portolan (PORT-oh-lawn) chart, the Carta Pisana, just appears in about 1275 — with no known predecessors. It is perhaps the first modern scientific map and contrasted sharply to the “mappamundi” of the era, the colorful maps with unrecognizable geography and fantastic creatures and legends. It bears no resemblance to the methods of the mathematician Ptolemy and does not use measurements of longitude and latitude

And yet, despite its stunning accuracy, the map “seems to have emerged full-blown from the seas it describes,” one reference journal notes. No one today knows who made the first maps, or how they calculated distance so accurately, or even how all the information came to be compiled.

“The real mystery is that if you took all the notebooks from the sailors used in making these charts, along with the coordinates and descriptions,” Hessler says, tapping the glass that covers the ancient vellum, “you still couldn’t make this map.”

via Library of Congress holds conference on origins of portolan charts.

The article reports on research using high-tech mapping technology that proves just how accurate these ancient maps were.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Orianna Laun

    More proof of evolution? It seems to me, with all our technology, we are becoming less and less able. We have tons of information at our fingertips, but are less educated than the educated people of 100 years ago.

  • Orianna Laun

    More proof of evolution? It seems to me, with all our technology, we are becoming less and less able. We have tons of information at our fingertips, but are less educated than the educated people of 100 years ago.

  • Tom Hering

    Obviously, we couldn’t do today what those mapmakers did back then – not the same way they did it. It’s amazing how much skill and knowledge are lost in just one generation. For example, when the Constellation return-to-the-Moon program got under way, designers had to visit space junkyards around the country and buy up old Apollo program components, so they could reverse engineer them. No one knew anymore how to build something like the Saturn V rocket.

  • Tom Hering

    Obviously, we couldn’t do today what those mapmakers did back then – not the same way they did it. It’s amazing how much skill and knowledge are lost in just one generation. For example, when the Constellation return-to-the-Moon program got under way, designers had to visit space junkyards around the country and buy up old Apollo program components, so they could reverse engineer them. No one knew anymore how to build something like the Saturn V rocket.

  • Bryan Lindemood

    This is so neat.
    Ah, If only the ideals of natural progress were really true…
    No, instead it takes real diligence and work and a true study of history becomes neither boring nor pointless at all. If only there was more time for history (both for me personally and for the schools).

  • Bryan Lindemood

    This is so neat.
    Ah, If only the ideals of natural progress were really true…
    No, instead it takes real diligence and work and a true study of history becomes neither boring nor pointless at all. If only there was more time for history (both for me personally and for the schools).

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Tom hits on a great point; one of the great difficulties in engineering these days is that too many companies (and apparently government agencies) see little need to keep senior engineers on staff, and hence the knowledge of the past is lost.

    In this case, one of the great engineering successes of the Apollo program was the elegant engineering solutions that are too often lost in a “Six Sigma” kind of environment–elegant engineering workarounds that allowed us to get to the moon, if I remember correctly, with only three or four digits of pi for calculating the ballistic path of the module.

    And ironically, one of the great sources for Six sigma tools is….NASA, especially tools like FMEA. So the tools they used to get to the moon ironically….might prevent us from going there again.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    Tom hits on a great point; one of the great difficulties in engineering these days is that too many companies (and apparently government agencies) see little need to keep senior engineers on staff, and hence the knowledge of the past is lost.

    In this case, one of the great engineering successes of the Apollo program was the elegant engineering solutions that are too often lost in a “Six Sigma” kind of environment–elegant engineering workarounds that allowed us to get to the moon, if I remember correctly, with only three or four digits of pi for calculating the ballistic path of the module.

    And ironically, one of the great sources for Six sigma tools is….NASA, especially tools like FMEA. So the tools they used to get to the moon ironically….might prevent us from going there again.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    I’m not sure six-sigma is the problem. I do think that we have separated “information” from “practice”. We have lost the concept of mimetic knowledge. Even having all the same info as NASA had 40 years ago doesn’t mean we have the same knowledge, or can build the same things. How many humans can replicate the stonework found in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland? Zero.

  • http://www.redeemedrambling.blogspot.com/ John

    I’m not sure six-sigma is the problem. I do think that we have separated “information” from “practice”. We have lost the concept of mimetic knowledge. Even having all the same info as NASA had 40 years ago doesn’t mean we have the same knowledge, or can build the same things. How many humans can replicate the stonework found in Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland? Zero.

  • Tom Hering

    It required research and innovation by hundreds of private companies to make the moon landing happen. Forty-one years later, after our government killed manned space missions beyond Earth orbit (1970), and Apollo was last used for Skylab (1973) and Apollo-Soyuz (1975), many of those companies are gone. Along with their people and records. Thus the break in the chain of skills and knowledge, and the necessary scavenging in space junkyards. Use it or lose it.

  • Tom Hering

    It required research and innovation by hundreds of private companies to make the moon landing happen. Forty-one years later, after our government killed manned space missions beyond Earth orbit (1970), and Apollo was last used for Skylab (1973) and Apollo-Soyuz (1975), many of those companies are gone. Along with their people and records. Thus the break in the chain of skills and knowledge, and the necessary scavenging in space junkyards. Use it or lose it.

  • Tom Hering

    Not every high achievement ends up being lost. There’s the Atelier Movement, which began in Europe in 1969 – the same year as the moon landing. Current story from the U.S.

  • Tom Hering

    Not every high achievement ends up being lost. There’s the Atelier Movement, which began in Europe in 1969 – the same year as the moon landing. Current story from the U.S.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Can someone tell me the point of comparing a large swath of modern people with the work of a handful of obviously clever people from the past?

    Could the average modern person make this map? No. Could he build the pyramids? No. Could he design an integrated circuit? No. Could he build Facebook? No.

    All we’ve learned from this exercise is that the average person cannot do what the brilliant person has done. Well duh.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Can someone tell me the point of comparing a large swath of modern people with the work of a handful of obviously clever people from the past?

    Could the average modern person make this map? No. Could he build the pyramids? No. Could he design an integrated circuit? No. Could he build Facebook? No.

    All we’ve learned from this exercise is that the average person cannot do what the brilliant person has done. Well duh.

  • Bob E

    Just more evidence to support the well documented??? ancient astronauts concept. These maps were obviously made from high altitude photos from UFO’s.

  • Bob E

    Just more evidence to support the well documented??? ancient astronauts concept. These maps were obviously made from high altitude photos from UFO’s.

  • Tom Hering

    tODD, I think the point is that brilliant people don’t achieve in a vacuum, but rather in a culture of preserved skills and knowledge. Bike Bubba @ 4 pointed out one way in which this truth is ignored to the detriment of all concerned.

  • Tom Hering

    tODD, I think the point is that brilliant people don’t achieve in a vacuum, but rather in a culture of preserved skills and knowledge. Bike Bubba @ 4 pointed out one way in which this truth is ignored to the detriment of all concerned.

  • Leif

    What amazes me more is the common perception that our ancestors were dumb.

    I was watching a show on the Minoans a couple days back and in almost one breath they explained that they had flush toilets and engineered their buildings with a high degree of earthquake stability but would have been scared by natural phenomenon because they didn’t understand it and something about religion and superstition, etc (I tuned out after that and woke back up to some show explaining how the aliens gave Moses a Manna Machine and that was how they lived in the desert!).

    Eh?

    To feed off of Tom’s posts:

    There’s something to be said for having a firm tradition to build from and a classical Master/Apprentice and/or guild system usually takes very good advantage of that principle. The unfortunate aspect is that it doesn’t exactly breed progress–at least in the artistic sense.

    Ateliers are great but the overall trend is to create some type of Old Masters-esque knockoff. The article you linked to in #7 points out that “Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Monet and Cezanne” studied at an Atelier, however, most (Delacroix was pretty staunch as was Courbet–ish) left the Atelier because it was far too rigid and prone to destroying any fashion of brilliance that these artists had. Manet rocked the academy, Monet furthered, and Cezanne destroyed it. Had they stayed in such a system art the very reasons they’re noteworthy would have been destroyed.

    I guess, in short, like most things it’s a little of column A and column B: tradition + innovation.

  • Leif

    What amazes me more is the common perception that our ancestors were dumb.

    I was watching a show on the Minoans a couple days back and in almost one breath they explained that they had flush toilets and engineered their buildings with a high degree of earthquake stability but would have been scared by natural phenomenon because they didn’t understand it and something about religion and superstition, etc (I tuned out after that and woke back up to some show explaining how the aliens gave Moses a Manna Machine and that was how they lived in the desert!).

    Eh?

    To feed off of Tom’s posts:

    There’s something to be said for having a firm tradition to build from and a classical Master/Apprentice and/or guild system usually takes very good advantage of that principle. The unfortunate aspect is that it doesn’t exactly breed progress–at least in the artistic sense.

    Ateliers are great but the overall trend is to create some type of Old Masters-esque knockoff. The article you linked to in #7 points out that “Delacroix, Courbet, Manet, Monet and Cezanne” studied at an Atelier, however, most (Delacroix was pretty staunch as was Courbet–ish) left the Atelier because it was far too rigid and prone to destroying any fashion of brilliance that these artists had. Manet rocked the academy, Monet furthered, and Cezanne destroyed it. Had they stayed in such a system art the very reasons they’re noteworthy would have been destroyed.

    I guess, in short, like most things it’s a little of column A and column B: tradition + innovation.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    John, Six Sigma isn’t “the” problem, but it does tend to be used to microengineer processes and reduce the need for senior engineers. As Tom Hering points out, this will tend to reduce the chances of a future Newton to “see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    John, Six Sigma isn’t “the” problem, but it does tend to be used to microengineer processes and reduce the need for senior engineers. As Tom Hering points out, this will tend to reduce the chances of a future Newton to “see further by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

  • Joe

    This discussion makes me think of my seventh grade lit class and Asimov’s The Feeling of Power.

    http://www.themathlab.com/writings/short%20stories/feeling.htm

  • Joe

    This discussion makes me think of my seventh grade lit class and Asimov’s The Feeling of Power.

    http://www.themathlab.com/writings/short%20stories/feeling.htm


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