The Maps Produced By Ancient Cultures

Nowadays, if you want to look at a map, you’re spoilt for choice. Online maps allow you to zoom in and out and switch between different types of map for the same area. You might go from looking at a road map to a terrain map to an Ordnance Survey map all at the click of a mouse.

But clearly maps aren’t a modern invention. They were developed thousands of years ago to fill the need of travellers, traders and explorers – not to mention for military or navy purposes.

Oldest maps

You could probably describe the dots marking out the night sky in Lascaux caves in France as being maps. They date back to around 16,500 BCE. However, there are also signs that pictorial representations of the local landscape were being used for navigation purposes in other caves, such as near Pavlov in the Czech Republic. These date back to 25,000 BCE and appear to show local routes and geographical features. There is a suggestion that a seventh millennium BCE wall painting may constitute the first example of a map created with the perspective from above, but this is up for debate.

Babylon and Egypt

The Babylonians were among the first to use proper surveying methods in order to create their maps. Examples date back to around the 25th or 24th century BCE. A clay tablet found near Kirkuk has hills marked with overlapping semi circles and towns and cities marked with circles. The points of the compass are also marked.

Ancient Egyptian maps are surprisingly rare given how advanced the civilisation. The Turin Papyrus Map dates back to around 1160 BCE. It was created for a quarrying expedition into the Eastern Desert. It features notes about features, distances and the locations of gold deposits.


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The Greeks

In Ancient Greece, observations made by explorers were allied to a mathematical approach to create maps. There was discussion about the shape of the earth with some people suggesting it was cylindrical and others suggesting it was flat. One idea had it that the earth was rectangular and flat and supported by compressed air.

Early maps depicted it as being flat and circular with an ocean around the edge. However, early versions were not created to scale and distances were instead marked in terms of ‘days sailing’ or ‘days marching’ depending whether it was land or sea being measured.

Around 500 BCE, Pythagoras pondered whether the earth might be spherical with a core of fire. He may well have drawn a map to illustrate his ideas, but it has not survived.


Chinese maps from the fourth century BCE have survived. They depict tributary river systems in Sichuan Province. There are symbols for administrative counties and rivers and roads are marked with lines.

Middle Ages

A great deal of progress was made during the Middle Ages, particularly by Muslim scholars. Explorers and traders were learning a great deal through travel but methodology was also improving. In the tenth century, the basic method for displaying a world map in rectangular form was devised and is still used today.

Ian Hirst has always been fascinated by maps and has decorated his office with some from Albion Antique Maps.

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