Is this map the oldest data visualization artifact in history ?

Posted on 07 Oct 2013 in   Chart of the Week, Data Visualization

After acquiring food, human’s next priority was to improve his communication. Drawing herds of deers, predators and maps enabled us to memorize or pass on our memory of food acquistion strategies.The human activity of graphically translating one’s perception of his world is now generally recognized as a universally acquired skill and one that pre-dates virtually all other forms of written communication.

Wikipedia has a list of old maps here.  The identification of any artifact as “the oldest map”, in any definitive sense, is a highly subjective and complex task. In our opinion, the oldest data visualization element is the oldest map in in the world. It (a ‘cuneiform’) came from Babylonia.

The name ‘cuneiform’ was first coined in 1686 by Engelbert Kampfer, who mistook the texts he saw in Persia, to be decorative patterns and described them as “cuneates”, which roughly means ‘wedge-shaped impressions’.maps-data-visualization

Treasure seekers and archaeologists poured into this part of the world to excavate Assyria and Babylonia, ‘thousands’ of cuneiform clay tablets were found among the many mounds scattered throughout the region.

Nevertheless, searching for the earliest forms of cartography is a continuing effort of considerable interest and fascination.

The land which is modern day Iraq, between and surrounding the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, is still producing remarkable treasures, many bearing illegible cuneiform texts, which was the style of writing used by the Sumerians. Wikipedia cites the following as the oldest map based on antiquity.


Babylonian Imago Mundi (c. 600 BCE)

Imago Mundi Babylonian map, the oldest known world map, 6th century BCE

A Babylonian world map, known as the Imago Mundi, is commonly dated to the 6th century BCE.[1][2] The map as reconstructed by Eckhard Unger shows Babylon on the Euphrates, surrounded by a circular landmass showing AssyriaUrartu[3] and several cities, in turn surrounded by a “bitter river” (Oceanus), with seven islands arranged around it so as to form a seven-pointed star. The accompanying text mentions seven outer regions beyond the encircling ocean. The descriptions of five of them have survived:

  • the third island is where “the winged bird ends not his flight,” i.e., cannot reach.

  • on the fourth island “the light is brighter than that of sunset or stars”: it lay in the northwest, and after sunset in summer was practically in semi-obscurity.

  • The fifth island, due north, lay in complete darkness, a land “where one sees nothing,” and “the sun is not visible.”

  • the sixth island, “where a horned bull dwells and attacks the newcomer”

  • the seventh island lay in the east and is “where the morning dawns.”

The Babylonian clay tablet that has been generally accepted as “the earliest known map” is the artifact unearthed in 1930 at the excavated ruined city of Ga-Sur at Nuzi , near the towns of Harran and Kirkuk, 200 miles north of the site of Babylon [present-day Iraq]. Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand (7.6 x 6.8 cm), most authorities place the the date of this map-tablet from the dynasty of Sargon of Akkad (2,300-2,500 B.C.); although, again, there is the conflicting dates offered by the distinguished Leo Bagrow of the Agade Period (3,800 B.C.) and other archeaologists.

The surface of the tablet is inscribed with a map of a district bounded by two ranges of hills and bisected by a water-course. This particular tablet is drawn with cuneiform characters and stylized symbols impressed, or scratched, on the clay. Inscriptions identify some features and places. In the center the area of a plot of land is specified as a 12 hectares piece of land and its owner is named Azala.