'If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.' - Pearl Buck

The Star Fresco from Teleilat Ghassul, Jordan

The Star Fresco from Teleilat Ghassul, Jordan

The Act of Preservation Through Cartography and Song

I’ve always loved listening to stories of the past. There is so much we can learn from history, mostly on how to make better informed decisions in all realms of life. There have been many mistakes and also many successes throughout the multitudes of civilizations. Our view, knowledge and understanding of the world evolves daily and it appears that it has always been this way. 

The University of Chicago has made an epic project available online with free pdf downloads of the six volume collection entitled, The History of Cartography. The maps date back to 2000 BC and include findings throughout the ages up to the 19th century.

The following text in italics comes from the Open Culture article written by Josh Jones: 

“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.” 

For most of recorded history, knowledge of the world from any one place was almost wholly or partly speculative and imaginative, often peopled with monsters and wonders.

“All cultures have always believed that the map they valorize is real and true and objective and transparent,” says Jerry Brotton Professor at Queen Mary University of London. Columbus believed in his speculative maps, even when he ran into islands off the coast of continents charted on none of them. We are still conceptual prisoners—or consumers, users, readers, viewers, audiences—of maps, though we’ve physically plotted every corner of the globe. Perspectives cannot be rendered objective. No gods-eye views exist.

The world is what you make of it and how you see it. Shapes, elements, still and in motion. What I love about the early maps is that squares and straight lines do not dominate the map illustrations. Creativity abounds with the unknown, which makes me wonder with all of the technology that we hold in our hands, what still remains mysterious to us?

Draw a map of your world. What does it look like?

Preview a volume here

Detail of a Muse playing a cithara from a painting depicting the musical contest of Apollo and the Satyr Marsyas. Part of the collection at the Musée du Louvre, Paris

Detail of a Muse playing a cithara from a painting depicting the musical contest of Apollo and the Satyr Marsyas. Part of the collection at the Musée du Louvre, Paris

Another massive project of reconstruction and documentation has been occurring at Oxford University. Musician and classics professor, Armand D’Angour has been working for the past five years to reconstruct ancient Greek songs.

Only a few fragments of the lyrics remain, so how are they doing it?

D’Angour points out that many literary texts of antiquity “provide abundant and highly specific details about the notes, scales, effects, and instruments used,” the latter including the lyre and the aulos, “two double-reed pipes played simultaneously by a single performer.”

Check out the entire article and the video of reconstructed music here

With both of these beautiful projects, it has made me consider the importance of maps and songs. Both are two important fragments that hold our history and our present lives together. How do we define ourselves, guide ourselves, express ourselves, and orient ourselves? Can you imagine a world without either?

Inspiration Recommendations:

The History of Cartography


Ancient Greek Music Reconstructed