Earliest Map Naming America Discovered

map A copy of the earliest map that names America has been discovered.

The map was created by German cartographer Martin Waldseemüller in 1507 based on explorers’ accounts. Only four copies are known to exist, but a fifth has just been discovered inside a 19th century book at the Ludwig Maximilian University library in Munich.

This map is slightly different than the others and appears to be a second edition.

Waldseemüller named the vaguely drawn land after Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci. His map is important because he shows America as being separate from Asia. Until this time the common assumption was that it was part of Asia.

The map is actually a globe gore, designed to be cut out and pasted onto a globe. It never was, and how it ended up in a book published three centuries later is a mystery.

To celebrate the Fourth of July, the library has put the map online.

Image courtesy Badische Landesbibliothek.

Ordnance Survey maps: sometimes government CAN do a great job

map, maps, OS maps, OS, Ordnance SurveyThe BBC recently interviewed a cartographer for the Ordnance Survey. This government department is in charge of mapping the United Kingdom, except for Northern Ireland, which has its own agency.

If you like maps or plan to hike in the UK, the Ordnance Survey maps are simply amazing. They’ve been measuring and drawing this green and pleasant land since the eighteenth century and produce the best maps I’ve ever used. In the interview, cartographer Dave Wareham explains how he uses GPS satellites and OS ground stations to get his measurements to within “a maximum tolerance of 2.6cm.” That’s one inch to you Yanks.

The smallest scale maps are truly amazing, with every fence, building, postbox, and public telephone carefully marked. If you know how to read a map and use a compass, it’s virtually impossible to get lost with one of these in your hand. Unfortunately, a poll back in 2007 discovered that the majority of Brits can’t read maps. If the UK government wasn’t ruthlessly slashing education spending they could add a map-reading course.

It’s nice to see a government project that works well. In the days of GPS and Google Maps, the Ordnance Survey still sells three million copies maps each year. They even turn a profit. My only quibble with the OS maps is that they’re updated only once every three or four years, which isn’t enough in some parts of the country, as I discovered while hiking the East Highland Way.

Still, they’re the best maps you’re going to find. If you’re having trouble shopping for that outdoorsy type in your life, grab some of these to inspire their next hike.

Mystery hitchhiker becomes poster child for National Library of Wales

Have you seen this man?

This is Islwyn Roberts, who was photographed in 1958 by Welsh newspaper Y Cymro as he set off to hitchhike around the world. It was a different world back then–flying was only for the rich, and many countries were sealed off behind the Iron Curtain. Mr. Roberts would have seen traditions and cultures that have all but died out today.

It must have been an amazing journey. The only problem is, nobody seems to know what happened to him. There are no other reports of his trip, so it isn’t known if he achieved his dream or gave up before he even got to France, which according to his sign was his first destination.

The National Library of Wales wants to know. It’s launching an exhibition on October 16 called Small World–Travel in Wales and Beyond and it’s made Roberts the poster child in the hope that someone remembers his tale. The exhibition, which is located at the library in Aberystwyth and will last until 2 April 2011, will look at the history of travel from a Welsh perspective. Some of the treasures on display include maps, diaries, and old railway posters, including rare 16th century maps by Welsh explorer Humphrey Lhuyd.

I hope they find out more about Roberts. Just looking at this photo I know I’d like him. He’s got a quirky, determined air about him as he sets off into the unknown, nattily dressed in a jacket and tie, with the practical addition of a pair of sturdy boots. One of the biggest mysteries of this photo is–did this guy have any luggage?

[Photo courtesy The National Library of Wales]

The East Highland Way day four: Pictish forts and empty wilderness


Views like this reassure me that I’m doing the right thing with my life.

It’s day four of my trek along the East Highland Way in Scotland, and the terrain is getting increasingly rugged. My trip today will take me through the most remote part of my walk. But before I go, I have an archaeological wonder to see first.

I head to a hill overlooking the village of Laggan to visit Dun-Da-Lamh, a fort built by the Picts. These people dominated Scotland in the murky years at the very beginning of recorded history. They were Celts like their neighbors, but with a distinctive art and culture. History first mentions them when they fought the Romans in the third century AD. It’s from a Roman writer that we get their name, which means “tattooed people”, referring to the complex blue tattoos said to cover their bodies. The Romans found Scotland more trouble than they could afford and eventually pulled back to Hadrian’s Wall, leaving the Picts to expand their power over the Highlands. These were rough times and the Picts were the fiercest warriors in the region, except for a brief period when they got their asses whooped by the Vikings. The Picts defended their land with massive hilltop forts.

After a pleasant ramble through a sunny valley of farmer’s fields and a sparkling stream, I start a grinding trudge up a steep hill. The trail coils around the hillside, it being far too steep to walk up directly. After a sweaty climb I make it to the top and on a rugged summit see the remains of the fort. It is deceptively simple in design–a single thick wall–but when new it would have been virtually impregnable. Most approaches to the summit are almost too steep to climb, especially if you have angry blue warriors throwing spears and rocks down at you. The one easy route is barred by the thickest point in the wall. Here the stones are piled 23 feet thick, and in the days before artillery nothing could have broken through. A few ravines that allow passage to the top also have strong points defending them.

%Gallery-100245%The stones are of moderate size and I don’t see any that I couldn’t lift, yet there must be tens of thousands of them. The effort required to build this place boggles my mind. It’s obvious why the Picts chose this spot. It gives a clear view down two valleys and a sweeping vista of the surrounding countryside. No army could approach without being seen.

In the tenth century the Picts united with another people, the Gaels, and founded the first true kingdom of Scotland. Even before this momentous merging of cultures they did much to create a Scottish identity. Their material remains gave later peoples something to be proud of. How could the Scottish, looking at these massive forts, the Picts’ intricately carved stone monuments of warriors and animals, and their glittering hordes of gold, not feel proud of their past? This heap of stones where I’m standing did the same for the Scots that the Parthenon did for the Greeks. It gave them a sense of identity distinct from the stronger nations that later ruled over them.

I’ve sat on this hill thinking of the past long enough. I have 15 miles to walk to get to my next stop, the village of Newtonmore, and dark clouds are gathering on the horizon. I set out.

The land between Laggan and Newtonmore is the best part of the East Highland Way. I step off a paved road onto a dirt track leading into a seemingly endless landscape of fields, streams, and hills, silent save for the wind. The track soon dissolves into nothing and I’m walking across short grass and heather. Now my compass comes in real handy. According to the maps I have to go north through a pass between two steep hills, then turn east at a stream and follow it across a broad valley surrounded by grim peaks of gray stone. While the topography is pretty clear, it’s reassuring to do some reckoning courtesy of the magnetic pole to double check where I am.

Where I am is nowhere, and that’s just where I want to be. I don’t see a soul. The few old stone cottages appear to be long abandoned. A see a few sheep grazing, so somebody must come here occasionally, but how often? My only other companions are some grouse and partridge. Rain spatters down on me as I negotiate streams that have never seen a bridge and squish along sheep’s trails that happen to go in my direction.

One peak catches my eye. Silhouetted against the gray sky is a strange shape. It appears to be either a cairn or a single standing stone. Perhaps some prehistoric marker or a monument of the Picts? It doesn’t appear on my Ordnance Survey map, which is so detailed it even marks the old crofts that have lain abandoned for three centuries. That doesn’t mean the stone is a natural feature. The land is so vast that the cartographers could miss something, even though it’s so visible from the valley below. It’s visibility hints that it is man-made, a marker of some kind. What could it be?

I don’t have time to find out. While the rain has stopped the sun is beginning to sink towards the horizon. Scotland’s summer evenings seem to last forever, but the wouldn’t last the hours it would take me to get to that summit and back down. I continue across the valley and up a hill and see Newtonmore nestled next to the River Spey. I leave the mystery of the stone behind for the next hiker to solve.

Coming up next: Exploring Scottish heritage!

Don’t miss the rest of my series on hiking the East Highland Way.