The History of Cartography, “the Most Ambitious Overview of Map Making Ever Undertaken,” Is Free Online

“Car­tog­ra­phy was not born full-fledged as a sci­ence or even an art,” wrote map his­to­ri­an Lloyd Brown in 1949. “It evolved slow­ly and painful­ly from obscure ori­gins.” Many ancient maps made no attempt to repro­duce actu­al geog­ra­phy but served as abstract visu­al rep­re­sen­ta­tions of polit­i­cal or the­o­log­i­cal con­cepts. Writ­ten geog­ra­phy has an ancient pedi­gree, usu­al­ly traced back to the Greeks and Phoeni­cians and the Roman his­to­ri­an Stra­bo. But the mak­ing of visu­al approx­i­ma­tions of the world seemed of lit­tle inter­est until lat­er in world his­to­ry. As “medi­a­tors between an inner men­tal world and an out­er phys­i­cal world”—in the words of his­to­ri­an J.B. Harley—the maps of the ancients tend­ed to favor the for­mer. This is, at least, a very gen­er­al out­line of the ear­ly his­to­ry of maps.

Harley’s def­i­n­i­tion occurs in the first chap­ter of Vol­ume One of The His­to­ry of Car­tog­ra­phy, a mas­sive six-vol­ume, mul­ti-author work trac­ing map mak­ing from pre­his­toric times up to the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry; “the most ambi­tious overview of map mak­ing ever under­tak­en,” Edward Roth­stein writes at The New York Times.

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go project, begun in the mid-80s, com­bines “essays based on orig­i­nal research by author­i­ta­tive schol­ars with exten­sive illus­tra­tions of rare and unusu­al maps.” Unlike his­to­ries like Brown’s, how­ev­er, this one aims to move beyond “a deeply entrenched Euro­cen­tric­i­ty.” The project includes non-West­ern and pre-medieval maps, pre­sent­ing itself as “the first seri­ous glob­al attempt” to describe the car­tog­ra­phy of African, Amer­i­can, Arc­tic, Asian, Aus­tralian, and Pacif­ic soci­eties as well as Euro­pean. In so doing, it illu­mi­nates many of those “obscure ori­gins.”

You might expect such an ambi­tious offer­ing to come with an equal­ly ambi­tious pric­etag, and you’d be right. But rather than pay over $200 dol­lars for each indi­vid­ual book in the series, you can read and down­load Vol­umes One through Three and Vol­ume Six as free PDFs at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press’s site. In these extra­or­di­nary schol­ar­ly works, you’ll find maps repro­duced nowhere else—like the Star Fres­co from Jor­dan just above—with deeply learned com­men­tary explain­ing how they cor­re­spond to very dif­fer­ent ways of see­ing the world.

At the links below, see images of maps from all over the globe and through­out record­ed human his­to­ry, and begin to see the his­to­ry of car­tog­ra­phy in very dif­fer­ent ways your­self.

Vol­ume 1

Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions

Vol­ume 2: Part 1

Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 1–24)
Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 25–40)

Vol­ume 2: Part 2

Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 1–16)
Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 17–40)

Vol­ume 2: Part 3

Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 1–8)
Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 9 –24)

Vol­ume 3: Part 1

Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 1–24)
Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 25–40)

Vol­ume 3: Part 2

Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 41–56)
Gallery of Col­or Illus­tra­tions (Plates 57–80)

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ancient Maps that Changed the World: See World Maps from Ancient Greece, Baby­lon, Rome, and the Islam­ic World

Down­load 67,000 His­toric Maps (in High Res­o­lu­tion) from the Won­der­ful David Rum­sey Map Col­lec­tion

A Map Show­ing How the Ancient Romans Envi­sioned the World in 40 AD

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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