Maps from Before History

It Took ‘Impossible’ Knowledge to Create Mysterious Medieval Maps

For seafarers of the late thirteenth century, there was no GPS, no radar, and no sonar. Getting where you wanted to go depended on the skill and experience—to say nothing of daring—of your ship’s pilot. In addition, such travel often required the use of highly prized navigational charts known as “portolans” (Portolano in Italian), which provided the direction and distance to various ports in the Mediterranean.

With the dawning of the so-called Age of Discovery in the early fifteenth century, portolans were treated by seafaring powers Spain and Portugal as top state secrets. Later, the Dutch and the English would use them to guide raiding and trading missions. The portolans have long been thought by scholars to be a product of the accumulated experience of Mediterranean seamen, providing essential compass headings and distance estimates learned over generations of trial and error. Proof, however, of the actual origins of the portolan charts has been illusive, and to this day their true source remains one of the great, unsolved mysteries. And now, thanks to a new study, the plot has thickened.

According to intensive Ph.D. research by geodetic scientist Roel Nicolai at Holland’s Utrecht University, the realistic sea charts of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, which first appeared in Pisa (Carta Pisano), out of nowhere, at about 1290, cannot possibly have originated in medieval Europe.

Showing the outlines of coasts, as well as ports, the charts were crisscrossed with many straight lines connecting opposite shores using the 32 directions marked on the navigator’s compass. The oldest portolans, though, strangely, make no appearance in earlier versions and reveal no logical path of development or evolution. Yet, despite the limited knowledge and measuring instruments of the period, the accuracy of the portolans is unquestioned—an astonishing fact which scholars have long attributed to fortunate coincidence. But, based on insights and methods from state-of-the-art geodesy, Nicolai’s research has now established that, even with the most forgiving assumptions, the ‘fortunate-coincidence’ hypothesis is “impossible.”

“So far,” says Nicolai, “it has been assumed that sailors carefully recorded data about the courses and distances which they travelled on busy shipping routes. Further, it was believed that their measurements had been compiled in books with sailing instructions, and [were] eventually processed by cartographers [made into maps].” However, he has shown, it is not likely that the nautical compass was even available in time; and, moreover, it is also extremely unlikely that navigational methods used at that point were sophisticated enough to establish distances with such precision.

In an attempt to replicate the presumed method by which portolan charts were produced, Nicholai averaged the data from numerous single sailing records detailing the location of harbors, the directions of sail, etc. The resulting accuracy was worse, by a factor of 10, than that of the actual portolan charts. That was true, even while using methods to calculate averages that were not available before the end of the seventeenth century. Only in the Nineteen Century did cartographers finally manage to re-achieve the accuracy of the portolans.

A new analysis of the oldest surviving portolan—by Portuguese chart maker Jorge de Aguiar in 1492—has revealed that its source data must have been derived, or copied, from some earlier unknown maps, and not from any written list of numbers. Indeed, the map copiers, who certainly used medieval parchment, probably had no idea how accurate were the details they were transferring. “We immediately recognize [in the portolan] the shape of the Mediterranean,” says Nicholai, “but even in the late Middle Ages, that shape was far from established on maps. Nobody really knew how all of the Mediterranean’s shorelines ran.”

Nicolai has also shown that the portolans were copied from various sources: “There are obvious differences of scale and orientation between different areas on portolan maps. Not only does that demonstrate clearly that they were collated from different maps, it also shows that those medieval cartographers were not familiar with the techniques used to produce those different sources.”

Most amazing of all: Nicholai has shown that, three centuries before Mercator, the originators of the portolans had the mathematical sophistication to project the curvature of the earth onto a flat surface. This is no easy trick.

The main reason most ancient maps look crude or primitive to modern eyes is their failure to reflect the earth’s roundness in the way we have come to expect. In 1569 the Flemish cartographer Gerardus Mercator unveiled a method of projecting the earth’s outlines onto a virtual cylinder, which made it possible to show lines of constant course, called “rhumb lines” or “loxodromes.” The technique preserved the angles with the meridians. The linear scale was equal in all directions around any point, thus simplifying the challenge of navigation. In other words, straight lines on a map translate to straight lines at sea. The Mercator projection, which required the use of an advanced mathematical conversion formula, had the effect of enlarging the apparent scale of areas near the poles and shrinking those near the equator, but it represented a great improvement over earlier methods. No evidence has been found that the knowledge required for chart projections was available when the portolans were made. The demonstration that the portolans were based on such projection methods could be a true game changer.

In identifying the original source of the mysterious charts, Nicholai does consider Constantinople, but then rules it out. The Byzantines, he believes, added little to the scientific knowledge they had inherited from the Classical Age—providing only a repository for ancient Greek and Arabic knowledge. And, he sees no reason why the Byzantines would even attempt to chart English and French coastlines that were well beyond their sphere of interest.

Could not portolans have an Arabic background? After all, the Arabs were keen astronomers and navigators. But, Nicolai contends, the accuracy of the portolans transcends the Arab navigational ability of the time and, for that matter, what we know of Roman and Greek scientific knowledge, as well. Although he concedes, the Arabs were scientifically ahead of Europe and had considerable knowledge of chart projections, he does not believe it has been convincingly shown that they had the knowledge required to reduce observations made on the earth’s curvature to the flat map surface.

The inescapable implication is, Nicholai believes, that part of history needs to be rewritten. “This needs to happen even if I am wrong,” he says, “because [the Portolan creators] were much further advanced in terms of knowledge in the Middle Ages than we think.” That there could have been such medieval European developments, of which we were totally unaware, he considers implausible. After all, he explains, charts of other parts of Europe were demonstrably less accurate than the portolans of the Mediterranean and Black Sea.

It seems plausible, he argues, that portolan charts originated from a tradition that is now lost. As for speculating about lost civilizations, he doesn’t want to go there. For now, though, he is convinced that we must think our way back step by step.

If such sophisticated cartographic technology did not come from the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, or even the Phoenicians, the burning question remaining is where, exactly, could it have come from?

Strangely enough, some scholars think the answer may have been proposed a half century ago by a pioneering small college professor in New England.


The Map of Columbus

The portolans of the Mediterranean and Black Sea, as it turns out, were not the only highly accurate, albeit anomalous, maps that have survived from antiquity. In 1966 Charles Hapgood, a Harvard trained professor of history, and a cartographer, at Keene State College in New Hampshire, wrote Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. The book featured many maps, which clearly revealed advanced knowledge from some unknown source. Most remarkable was the Piri Reis map of 1513. That map and others, Hapgood believed, provided “hard evidence that advanced people preceded all the people now known to history.”

Hapgood was no ordinary small college professor. He had been an official in the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. In the 1950s he personally advised President Eisenhower concerning ancient map evidence. Even Albert Einstein wrote a foreword to one of his books.

Regarding the portolan mystery, Hapgood acknowledged that most such charts were of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea, but he knew that well authenticated maps of other areas also survived—maps which demonstrated similar accuracy but on a much larger scale. In the preface to Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings he stated flatly, “the ancient voyagers traveled from pole to pole.” As impossible as it may sound, he wrote, “the evidence nevertheless indicates that some ancient people explored the coast of Antarctica when it was free of ice. It is clear, too, that they had an instrument of navigation for accurately finding the longitudes of places that was far superior to anything possessed by the peoples of ancient, medieval, or modern times until the second half of the eighteenth century.”

Discovered in 1929, in the former Imperial Palace (The Seraglio) in Constantinople, the most remarkable of Hapgood’s maps was created by Piri Reis, a sixteenth century Turkish admiral. Inscriptions on its margin claim the western part, showing the American coasts, was copied from a map that had been in the possession of Christopher Columbus but which had fallen into the hands of the admiral along with the booty seized from eight Spanish ships captured in a battle off the coast of Valencia in 1501 or 1508.

That very map, Hapgood believed, had been part of a larger one, which in 1492, had guided Columbus on his epic journey of discovery. In correspondence with President Eisenhower, Hapgood promoted a renewed effort to find the chart, which he believed still to be in Spanish hands.

“The most remarkable detail of the Piri Reis map, indicating its enormous age,” Hapgood wrote to Eisenhower, “was pointed out by Captain Arlington H. Mallory some years ago. [Mallery] stated that the lower part of this map showed the sub-glacial topography of Queen Maud Land, Antarctica, and the Palmer Peninsula. After four years of study of the map, we came to recognize that Captain Mallery’s statement was correct, but desiring the most authoritative checking of our conclusions, we submitted the data to the cartographic staff of the Strategic Air Command.” Hapgood appended the Air Force study to his letter. He continued, “Needless to say, this is a matter of enormous importance for cartography and for history. The Antarctic ice cap is at present one mile thick over the areas shown on the Piri Reis Map. Consultations with geological specialists have indicated beyond question the truth that the data on the map is many thousands of years old. It seems that the Antarctic ice cap [has] covered the Queen Maud Land coast [for at least the last] 6,000 years… The map information must have been obtained earlier, either by the Phoenicians or by some earlier (and unknown) people.”

The ancient sea charts, including the Piri Reis map and others, Hapgood believed, reflected the possession of highly accurate information that had been passed down for thousands of years from people to people. It was possible, he thought, that the Minoans (the sea kings of ancient Crete) and the Phoenicians could have been involved in the transmission, if not necessarily the origination, of the information. In his book, Hapgood provided evidence that ancient maps were collected and studied in the great Library of Alexandria and compilations of them were made by the geographers who worked there. The library had been completely destroyed by the end of the fourth century, with its contents completely lost.

Well, maybe not ‘completely’…

Hapgood also knew that copies of these maps had been transferred to Constantinople. Rand Flem-Ath, who, with his wife Rose, wrote Atlantis Beneath the Ice, (Inner Traditions, 2012) was a frequent correspondent of Hapgood’s. In his book Flem-Ath says Hapgood thought these maps inspired the European “Age of Discovery and especially the expeditions under the direction of King Henry, the Navigator of Portugal.”

In Atlantis Rising #78  (November/December 2009) in his article, “The Lost World Map of Christopher Columbus,” Flem-Ath explained how Hapgood feared that the Spanish would not pursue the search, out of concern that it might reveal that someone other than Columbus deserved the credit for discovering America. Still, Eisenhower followed through on the professor’s proposal, instructing John David Lodge, his ambassador to Spain, to attempt location of the map.

To this day, though, its whereabouts remain a mystery.


The Atlantis Connection

In his professional academic publications, Hapgood preferred to attribute maps like the Piri Reis to the ancient Egyptians and shied away from mentioning Atlantis. The very word was (and to a large extent still is) taboo. But with his students, he was quite open on the subject and even encouraged them to research it. And, according to Flem-Ath, who examined Hapgood’s personal archives at Yale, the idea of Atlantis was at the root of his fascination with the maps of the ancient sea kings. The islands of St. Peter and St. Paul in the mid-Atlantic, Hapgood believed, in fact, matched Plato’s description of the plain upon which the city of Atlantis once stood.

“When he spotted those mid-Atlantic islands,” Flem-Ath told Atlantis Rising, “he immediately thought—Atlantis! He even tried to interest President Kennedy in the quest.” His timing was terrible, though. After starting the ball rolling in October 1963, he hoped to see JFK before Christmas, but—as we all now know—events in Dallas intervened.

Many questions persist regarding what kind of lost ancient society could have possessed the knowledge needed to create the Piri Reis map and the portolans. For those who treat the matter seriously, though, there has been no shortage of clues that there was once a civilization on this planet possessing many great secrets, which have been lost.

One need only consider the advanced technologies that must have been employed in the building of mysterious ancient monuments, like the Great Pyramid, Angkor Wat, or Easter Island, to see that we have forgotten a great deal. Immanuel Velikovsky, scientist, psychiatrist, and author of Worlds in Collision, believed the psychological condition and case history of Earth is one of amnesia, where the catastrophic destruction of once advanced societies has led to a near universal inability to deal consciously with the facts of our origins.

The late John Michell, a Cambridge-trained scholar, thought ancient earthworks and stone monuments across much of the Earth—sharing many features but built for an unknown purpose—were the remains of a unified, worldwide system that served the elemental science of the civilization that Plato called Atlantis. “We live within the ruins of an ancient structure,” he said, “whose vast size has hitherto rendered it invisible.” Could current research be uncovering the outline of an ancient edifice whose full dimensions have, for whatever reason, previously escaped the attention of the ruling academic elite?

If, like ancient ice, the amnesia is now beginning to thaw a bit, it should be a good thing, but stormy seas—uncharted by any portolan—may yet lie ahead.

By Martin Ruggles