This week: Mapping the cosmos

Bronze armillary sphere by Father Verbiest at the open air observatory, Peking. IMAGE: Wikimedia Commonos.

These days, we take it for granted that we carry the world – and the cosmos – in our pockets. Powerful smart phones and ever-more-sophisticated technology mean that we can summon up highly detailed maps both of the earth and the heavens above with just a few taps of the screen.

It was not always like this, of course.

Long before the launch of Google Maps in 2005, map-making was a pursuit of vital importance – sometimes even a matter of life and death – as mankind sought to make sense of the world by reducing it to symbolic form, and to share that knowledge with others.

Markings on stone from as long ago as 11,000 BC have been identified as simple early maps. Around 6,200 BC, the Neolithic inhabitants of Çatal Höyük, in Turkey, left behind a clear representation of the settlement in which they lived. But as we learn this week on The Past, it was equally important for the agricultural societies of the Bronze Age to find a way to map the stars, using the position of the sun to identify the right time to plant and harvest crops.

In the new issue of Current World Archaeology magazine, Neil Wilkin tells the story of the extraordinary and beautiful Nebra Sky Disc, which probably dates to around 3,600 years ago, making it the earliest known map of the cosmos. Encoded with sophisticated celestial knowledge, the Sky Disc has been described as a ‘portable Stonehenge’ – entirely fitting for an object that is currently one of the highlights of The world of Stonehenge, the British Museum’s blockbuster survey of culture between 4,000 and 1,000 BC.

Also this week on The Past, we have been delving into the archives to discover more about how our early ancestors related to the cosmos: we examined the Antikythera mechanism, the Ancient Greek analogue computer used to predict the movements of the Sun and the Moon; we learned how Chinese emperors looked to the skies to receive their ‘Mandate of Heaven’; and we visited North Yorkshire to catch up on the latest research into the ‘Stonehenge of the north’.

And finally, don’t forget to have a go at our latest themed Quiz, which this week is also focused on maps and map-making. Good luck, and we hope you enjoy The Past!

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