TITLE: The Earliest Known Map
DATE: 6,200 B.C.
DESCRIPTION: The human activity of graphically translating one's
perception of his world is now generally recognized as a universally acquired
skill and one that pre-dates virtually all other forms of written communication.
Set in this pre-literate context and subjected to the ravages of time, the
identification of any artifact as "the oldest map", in any definitive
sense, becomes an elusive task. Nevertheless, searching for the earliest
forms of cartography is a continuing effort of considerable interest and
fascination. These discoveries provide not only chronological benchmarks
and information about geographical features and perceptions thereof, but
they also verify the ubiquitous nature of mapping, help to elucidate cultural
differences and influences, provide valuable data for tracing conceptual
evolution in graphic presentations, and enable examination of relationships
to more "contemporary primitive" mapping.
As such, there are a number of well-known early examples which appear in
most standard accounts of the history of cartography. The most familiar
artifacts presented as "the oldest extant cartographic efforts"
are the Babylonian maps engraved on clay tablets. These maps vary in scale,
ranging from small-scale world conceptions to regional, local and large-scale
depictions, down to building and grounds plans. In detailed accounts of
these cartographic artifacts there are conflicting estimates concerning
their antiquity, content and significance. Dates quoted by "authorities"
may vary by as much as 1,500 years and the interpretation of specific symbols,
colors, geographic locations and names on these artifacts often differ in
interpretation from scholar to scholar.
One such Babylonian clay tablet that has been generally accepted as "the
earliest known map" is the artifact unearthed in 1930 at the excavated
ruined city of Ga-Sur at Nuzi [Yorghan Tepe], near the towns of Harran
and Kirkuk, 200 miles north of the site of Babylon [present-day
Iraq]. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (7.6 x 6.8 cm), most
authorities place the the date of this map-tablet from the dynasty of Sargon
of Akkad (2,300-2,500 B.C.); although, again, there is the conflicting date
offered by the distinguished Leo Bagrow of the Agade Period (3,800
B.C.). The surface of the tablet is inscribed with a map of a district bounded
by two ranges of hills and bisected by a water-course. This particular tablet
is drawn with cuneiform characters and stylized symbols impressed, or scratched,
on the clay. Inscriptions identify some features and places. In the center
the area of a plot of land is specified as 354 iku [about 12 hectares],
and its owner is named Azala. None of the names of other places can
be understood except the one in the bottom left comer. This is Mashkan-dur-ibla,
a place mentioned in the texts from Nuzi as Durubla. By the
name, the map is identified as of a region near present-day Yorghan Tepe
(Ga-Sur at the time, the name Nuzia 1,000 years later), although
the exact location is still unknown. Whether the map shows a stream running
down a valley to join another, or running from that to divide in to three,
and whether they are rivers or canals, cannot be determined. The shaded
area at the left side, to or from which the channels run, was named, but
the writing is illegible. Groups of overlapping semicircles mark ranges
of hills, a convention used by artists then and in later times. The geographic
content consists of the area of a river valley which may be that of the
Euphrates flowing through a three-lobed delta and into a lake or sea in
the northern part of Mesopotamia. Also shown on this tablet may be the tributary
river the Wadi-Harran, the Zargos Mountains in the east, the Lebanon, or
Anti-Lebanon in the west, and cities which are symbolized by circles. North,
East and West are indicated by inscribed circles, implying that maps were
aligned in the cardinal directions then as they are now. This tablet also
illustrates the sexagesimal system of mathematical cartography developed
by the Babylonians and represents the earliest known example of a topographic
However, while the Babylonian clay tablet map described here has been the
generally accepted "earliest known map", another contender might
be the cartographic artifact found in 1963 by James Mellaart in Ankara,
Turkey during an excavation of Catal Hyük in Anatolia. While
less distinctive and on a much larger scale, this unearthed map-form is
a wall painting that is approximately nine feet long and has an in situ
radiocarbon date of 6,200 + 97 B.C. Mellaart believes that the map depicts
a town plan, matching Catal Hyük itself, showing the congested
"beehive" design of the settlement and displaying a total of some
80 buildings. One illustration of this map shows the painting from the north
and east walls of the shrine. In the foreground is a town arising in graded
terraces closely packed with rectangular houses. Behind the town an erupting
volcano is illustrated, its sides covered with incandescent volcanic bombs
rolling down the slopes of the mountain. Others are thrown from the erupting
cone above which hovers a cloud of smoke and ashes. The twin cones of the
volcano suggest that an eruption of Hasan Dag, rising to a height of 10,672
feet, and standing at the eastern end of the Konya Plain and visible from
Catal Hyük, is recorded here. These local volcanic mountains
were important to the inhabitants of Catal Hyük as a source
of obsidian used in the making of tools, weapons, jewelry, mirrors and other
objects. Further, from graphic embellishments around the mountain, Mellaart
has speculated that the depiction of the volcano in an active state is accurate
since vulcanism in this area continued for some 4,000 years later.
Clearly, the Catal Hyük "map" is still not the beginning
of cartographic history. Investigation into the earliest beginnings of cartography
will continue with a fair probability of further successes. This optimism
is warranted by the fact the the materials used during these periods to
record such geographical spatial concepts were more durable elements such
as stone, clay, metal, earthenware, etc., unlike later cartographic artifacts
made of more fragile materials such as paper and wood.
LOCATION: Slide 100, Museum at Konya, Turkey
Slide 100D is in the Semitic Museum at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA)
*Bagrow, L., The History of Cartography, p. 31.
*Brown, L., The Story of Maps, pp. 33, 37.
*Dilke, O.A.W., Greek and Roman Maps, pp. 11,102
*Harley, J.B., The History of Cartography, Volume I, pp. 113-115.
*Mellaart, J., "Excavations of Catal Hyük, 1963, Anatolian Studies",
Journal of the British Institute at Ankara, vol. XIX, 1964.- "Catal
Hyük: A Neolithic Town in Anatolia", pp. 17-177.
*Raisz, E., General Cartography, p. 5.
*Steward, M., "The Catal Hyük Map", Mapline, no. 19, September
*Thrower, N.J.W., Maps and Man, p. 13.