Oldest Western Map?

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.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.

1 Response

  1. November 20, 2005

    Oldest Western Map?

    […] Alun has a good post ana­lyz­ing who may have cre­ated the Soleto Map, as it was recently repor­ted again in the Telegraph. […]

    AUTHOR: Terry Walsh
    The four let­ters on the extreme right of the map are the first four sym­bols for the Greek for Aquarius (Hudrochoos)!

    AUTHOR: alun
    Thanks for point­ing that out. I noticed it was sim­ilar to Hyder, but for some reason only con­nec­ted it with the Welsh water com­pany. Hudrochoos makes a lot more sense.

    I think that kills any hope I had of it being a nat­ive drawn map.