Antique Maps Tell The History Of The World

Antique maps tell the story of the world and its history in different ways. Maps, by definition, are a representation or scale model of spatial concepts illustrating and communicating geographic information of their time in history.

Looking at the latest book publication “A history of the world in twelve maps” by Jerry Brotton, a BBC4 presenter, tells the story of the history of the world through examining twelve old maps. He reveals how the maps shaped the perception of the world.

Analysing old maps can provide insights into the cultural, psychological and political background of their respective times. Historical maps hugely differ from today’s cartography which is based on facts and accuracy of figures, knowledge and technology. Antique maps are subjective and ideological accounts and the map itself would depend on who created it and when it was created.

The late 15th century European view of the world was a mix of superstition and imagination combined with scientific observations and facts. Antique reproductions of 15th century maps reveal these cultural perceptions: the medieval map, often referred to as T-O maps, represents three continents spatially organised into the shape of a T, within a circle that contains both real and imagined countries.

It was not until the 17th century, that countries commenced national mapping programs to attempt to rule out imagination from geographic maps and mapping. However, factual representation was still limited by technology.

The emergence of geographic information systems (GIS) in the 1970-80s, completely revolutionised the way maps were produced. Computer software and hardware replaced paper and ink and in return generated highly accurate digital data.

This shift in the cartography paradigm may be perceived by the majority of people as useful in aiding the knowledge and understanding of the world. However, others may look upon it with nostalgia as maps are not purely representations of geographic information but also objects of beauty and art.

Consequently, with the introduction of GIS, the collection and popularity of ancient and historic maps as desirable collectables has risen. The most beautifully crafted maps are known to reach steep prices at auctions and art houses.

It is the advancements in computer hardware and software that has made geographic representations increasingly more accurate, these technological advances have enabled digital reproduction of maps – so that they’re all the same. Consequently, these collectables are no longer merely reserved to the affluent, but affordable collectibles ranging from famous portraits, travel paintings to maps.

This article was written by Duncan Turner, a collector of antique prints and in particular old maps.