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Thanks in abundance to Archaeology in Europe for highlighting this story in the Telegraph about the western world’s oldest map

The Oldest Map in the Western World?
The Soleto Map. Photo from the Daily Telegraph.

The map is of the heel of Italy. You can tell because of the “ΤΑΡΑΣ” on the left of the sherd, which is the label for Taras, modern Taranto. The other places are in the local language, Messapian. It’s exciting because it dates back to around 500BC. This puts it in an era when Greek cities in Southern Italy were firmly established.

This is being taken as more evidence that the Messapians were from Illyria, a region just to the north of classical Greece. The language of the Messapi is very similar to Illyrian dialects. I’m wary of mapping linguistic groups onto ethnicities. I speak a Germanic language, but I’m pretty certain that doesn’t make me German. Also evidence from Iron Age Britain shows that language can travel without necessarily having large movements of people.

The best page I’ve found on it so far in English is from the AWMC who had this noted over a year ago.

What I don’t know is who wrote it. It was in Greek, so you’d guess a Greek. But could the natives be using the Greek alphabet for their own means, just like the Greeks copied the Phoenician alphabet a few years earlier? If this is the case could this be a native map rather than a Greek map? There is a tendency to blame Pythagoras for a lot of the innovation that happens in the western colonies, while innovation in the east is the product of interaction with the Persians and Babylonians. Might mapping like this be assumed by later (Greek) historians to have been a Greek invention because of their low opinion of the natives of the west? I have a feeling this idea is wrong but it can’t just be dismissed out of hand. I’m off to email someone who will know better.

Additional: I’ve just noted, it is interesting how neatly the symbol for sea matches the symbol for Aquarius. Given that this is a conceptual symbol borrowed by the Greeks from the East it makes it more likely (to me) to be a Greek hand that scratched this than a native. The natives could have borrowed the Aquarius symbol along with the alphabet, but it’s another step to make. I suppose the symbol is also suggestive of water, but the spikiness makes it unlike the waves of the sea. The O in “Otan” does show the inscriber could have scratched curves if he wished.