Saturday, October 2, 2010

Ptolemy Knew a Lot About Germany's Urban Economy

In 150 AD, the mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy drew 26 maps of the known world in colored ink on dried animal skins. One of these depicts “Germania Magna”, an area far remote from his residence in Alexandria. He nevertheless demonstrated extensive knowledge of the country even though the map has been until now difficult to interpret despite repeated efforts by linguists and historians.

But new work by a group of classical philologists, mathematical historians and surveying experts at Berlin Technical University’s Department for Geodesy and Geoinformation Science has produced, from the Ptolemy’s drawing, an astonishing map of central Europe as it was 2.000 years ago. The map shows that the North and Baltic Seas were known as the “Germanic Ocean” and the Franconian Forest in northern Bavaria was “Sudeti Montes”. It also shows a large number of cities such as Bicurgium (present day Jena) and Navalia (Essen). It turns out that half of the present day cities in Germany are 2.000 years old.

Researchers believe Ptolemy drew on Roman traders’ travel itineraries, analyzed seafarers’ notes and consulted maps used by Roman legions operating to the north. It was primarily surveyors with the Roman army, which appears to have advanced as far as the Vistula River, who collected information on the barbarians’ lands. The researchers had the great fortune to be able to refer to a parchment tracked down at Topkapi Palace in Instanbul, the document being the oldest edition of Ptolemy’s work ever discovered.

The complete article in the Spiegel Online is well worth reading and it includes two photos of the ancient medieval copy of Ptolemy’s map.

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