While maps have been around for thousands of years – from the more simplistic ones found on some of the earliest inhabited caves to the intricate found throughout some of our most impressive ancient civilizations to those of today – our tools used to make them have not.

 Modern age tools such as satellites, planes, and even printers are still relatively new inventions. So, how exactly did those who came before us make such detailed and frequently accurate maps? We’re here to answer that. Keep reading to learn how these were made in the past. 

The (Old) Age of Information

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Our modern-day world has made many things easier for us. Simply living our lives looks utterly different from how it once was, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that our mapmaking has also seen some dramatic innovations. However, what you might be surprised by is that many of the tools and skills used by our ancestors are still very much critical to certain cartography today, namely their survey techniques. 

These were indeed how most accurate maps of the ancient world were developed. Instead of merely guesstimating about the distance between designated points and roughly reflecting that through drawings, people did things differently. 

Consider the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and others who used astronomical observations, latitude and longitude, details explained by frequent travelers, documents describing locations of various towns/regions, and calculations of distances and angles between the points they were trying to represent to build up a more grounded, scientific, and thorough base for their maps. 

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In other words, they gathered a whole lot of information, pulling from every avenue they could in the name of accuracy. It was a long and involved process that could take months depending on the type of map being crafted. 

Even just acquiring realistic info about distances between towns and other vital locations didn’t come easily. After all, they didn’t have a birds’ eye view nor a million phone apps at their disposal. 

Instead, they would have walkers go to various locations while keeping track of paces, use wheel-based odometers, or use mathematics to figure up distance based on the time and speed of ships traveling before being translated to paper or parchment. 

Quite a bit of work, to be sure, but it certainly paid off in the long run. These maps were critical for exploration and trade and remain rather detailed and accurate even to this day. 

The Rise of Triangulation

Early surveying techniques and gathered information were critical for the formation of ancient maps and absolutely worked for the time. However, their efficiency wasn’t quite as on point as their effectiveness. 

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These methods could be extremely time-consuming and involved considerable research and double-checking to guarantee everything was properly reflective of their real-life positioning.

The rise of a new surveying method called ‘triangulation’ changed the name of the game, making cartography easier than ever and more efficient. 

Haven’t heard of the term before or don’t really know what it is? Triangulation is a process that uses the length of one side of a triangle and the angles of two known reference points to determine the location, distance, and coordinates of a certain point. That may not sound that impressive on a theoretical level, but it changed everything on a practical one. 

For mapmaking, the triangulation process allowed distances and elevation to be measured regardless of how close or far away they were. 

And in turn, this meant maps could be created for larger, further away areas that previously wouldn’t have been as accessible to people. In fact, advanced forms of the surveying technique led to the initial creation of countrywide maps by the end of the 18th century. 

Compounded with widespread printing solutions, the growth of public understanding about math, the Earth, and geography as a whole, and the growth of publishing houses, triangulation and its resulting maps influenced trade, travel, military movement, and territory expansion further than ever before and set us up for the knowledge, maps, and the world we have today. 

Where Past Meets Present

Surveying methods like the ones presented here were hugely innovative and essential throughout the entirety of our past. All those ancient maps that were created because of them? They would’ve never come to fruition. 

We’d struggle to understand even a fraction of what we do about ancient and medieval geography and thus the lives and history that were influenced by it. Not only that but everything as we know it might be completely different because of maps’ influence in the development of many civilizations. 

Yet these old school surveying techniques and maps’ importance don’t only lie in how they’ve influenced the past. The former is still often used today (especially in smaller-scale cartography) and has paved the way for modern refinement and newer methods. 

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After all, they form the basis of our knowledge. Modern technological advances may streamline work and productivity but utilizing tried-and-true methodologies from the past ensures attention to detail, quality control, and increased accuracy/precision. Turns out, sometimes man has the edge over the machine, and what we’ve learned from the past plays a huge role in that.


– Did you find the historical background behind mapmaking interesting? If so, you can find out more and discover other fascinating tidbits of map knowledge right here at www.mapshop.com

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