(Re)mapping the Ancient World

Posted inEllen Shapiro
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 holding a globe and a baton.

He knew the world was round? A coin from c. 300 depicts Emperor Aureus of Diocletian holding a globe.

Imagine the world as a neat rectangle or oval, flat, with wavy blue water on all four sides. A river runs through it, horizontally. At the center is the Roman emperor, sitting on his throne.

If you’re used to zooming in on any spot on the planet via Google Earth, it’s sobering to imagine what life was like when the shape and features of the known world emanated from the imaginations of soldiers, sailors, philosophers, travellers, traders, theologians and royals, each of whom drew from experiences shaped by the religious and political realities of the time.

At NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, you can step back in time and see how early information architects envisioned the world. Through January 5, a free exhibition, “Measuring and Mapping Space: Geographic Knowledge in Greco-Roman Antiquity, examines geographic knowledge in ancient Greece and Rome—and how artists visually translated that knowledge into maps, coins, and decorations on terracota urns.


Detail of the Peutinger Map, an early medieval interpretation of the world that was discovered by Renaissance scholar Konrad Peutinger in c. 1500.

Visitors are invited to explore a 22-foot-wide digital replica of the Peutinger Map, a parchment scroll that somewhat fancifully depicts through illustration, icons and typography the assumed or idealized locations of about 4,000 places in the Roman Empire, the Near East and India, including large cities, small towns, mountains, lakes and rivers. On display in glass cases are originals and facsimiles of relief fragments, rare books and illuminated manuscripts.


A page from “Commentary on the Apocalypse” by Beatus, an 8th-century Spanish monk, which depicts Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden

Geographica, a world map by Ptolemy, c.1460

Geographica, a world map by Ptolemy, c.1460

Land Map of Palestine, a Venetian map c. 1550

Land Map of Palestine, a Venetian map c. 1550

One of New York City’s better-kept secrets, the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World was established in 2006 as an independent center for scholarly research and graduate education. Previous exhibits have included “Echoes of the Past: The Buddhist Cave Temples of Xiangtangshan,” which featured Chinese sculpture from sixth-century caves, and an exhibition of thirteen Babylonian tablets that revealed the mathematical sophistication that flourished in Babylonia—present-day Iraq—a thousand years before the time of Pythagoras, said to be the father of mathematics.

Too esoteric, scholarly and geeky? I would have thought so, too, until I sat at one of the Mac terminals in the multimedia area. There, I was able to overlay ancient visions with current technologies and zoom in on geographical areas that interest me, like Vietri, on Italy’s Amalfi Coast, a major ceramics center. I accessed information provided by a worldwide consortium of scholars and pondered becoming part of the conversation myself.


The curators have made many of these resources available online, so you don’t even have to be in New York to take advantage of cool programs like Pleiades Gazetteer, above, which randomly or via search allows you to explore 34,000 ancient places ranging from Hadrian’s Wall to the island of Sardinia. Scholars are continuously adding to the database, and you can add your own links and images.


Also worth exploring is Pelagios, a program that lets you click on a “heatmap” and get referred to a host of informational resources.

Antiquity a la Carte

Technology also illuminates ancient sites and artifacts at Antiquity a la Carte. The Ancient World Mapping Center at UNC-Chapel Hill built this interactive digital atlas with layers of features, including roads, watercourses and urban areas. Zoom in and click the features on and off and watch them build on your screen.

NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World is open Tuesday – Sunday, and is located in an elegant townhouse at 15 East 84th Street, off Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum.


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