Theater of the World

The Maps that Made History


Translated by Alison McCullough

By Thomas Reinertsen Berg

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A beautifully illustrated full-color history of mapmaking across centuries — a must-read for history buffs and armchair travelers.

Theater of the World offers a fascinating history of mapmaking, using the visual representation of the world through time to tell a new story about world history and the men who made it. Thomas Reinertsen Berg takes us all the way from the mysterious symbols of the Stone Age to Google Earth, exploring how the ability to envision what the world looked like developed hand in hand with worldwide exploration.

Along the way, we meet visionary geographers and heroic explorers along with other unknown heroes of the map-making world, both ancient and modern. And the stunning visual material allows us to witness the extraordinary breadth of this history with our own eyes.




Oslo, Norway

59° 56′ 38″ N

10° 44′ 0″ E

Human beings took a bird’s-eye view of the world long before learning to fly. Since prehistoric times, we have drawn our surroundings as seen from above to better understand where we are–rock carvings of houses and fields provide early evidence of this need. But it is only relatively recently that we have been able to see how everything really looks. On Christmas Eve 1968, the three astronauts aboard Apollo 8 orbited the Moon and became the first humans to see the entire Earth at once. ‘Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty! […] Hand me that roll of colour quick, will you,’ said astronaut William Anders, before taking a photograph of our planet hovering beautiful, lonely and fragile in the infinite vastness of space.

Apollo was the Greek god who rode across the sky in his chariot each day, pulling the Sun behind him. When Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius published the world’s first modern atlas in 1570, just 400 years before Apollo 8 orbited the Moon, a friend of his composed a tributary poem in which Ortelius sits beside the god in order to see the whole world: ‘Ortelius, who the luminous Apollo allowed to speed through the high air beside him in his four-horse chariot, to behold from above all the countries and the depths that surround them.’

Ortelius’s atlas opens with a world map, with clouds drawn aside like stage curtains to reveal the Earth. With the book open before us, we look down on Noruegia, Barbaria, Mar di India, Aegyptus, Manicongo, Iapan, Brasil, Chile and Noua Francia. Ortelius called the book Theatrum orbis terrarumTheatre of the World–because he believed the maps enabled us to watch the world play out before our eyes, as if in a theatre.

Regarding the world as a theatre was common in Ortelius’s time. The year after Theatrum was published, English playwright Richard Edwardes had one of his characters say that ‘this world was like a stage,/Whereon many play their parts’–a formulation so admired by William Shakespeare that he used it in As You Like It some years later: ‘All the world’s a stage,/And all the men and women merely players;/They have their exits and their entrances.’ Shakespeare also named his theatre the Globe.

Ortelius was no original cartographer. Nor was he an astronomer, geographer, engineer, surveyor or mathematician–in fact he had no formal education within any discipline. He did, however, know enough about cartography to understand what made a good map and what made a poor one, and with his sense of quality, thoroughness and beauty–in addition to a large network of contacts and friends, who either drew maps themselves or knew others who did so–was able to collate a refined selection of maps for inclusion in the world’s first atlas.

Writing a book about the history of maps is somewhat reminiscent of Ortelius’s work with Theatrum. This book also builds upon the work of many others, and I have studied a considerable number of books, texts and films to identify the most important and interesting material. It has also been necessary to make certain choices–no map can cover the whole world, and no book can contain cartography’s entire history, since the history of maps may be said to be the history of society itself. Maps are of political, economic, religious, everyday, military and organisational significance, and this has necessitated some difficult decisions about what to include. The hardest decisions to make have been those relating to material closest to our present time, since scarcely any aspect of society is unaffected by cartographic questions.

Throughout history, the creation of maps has been guided by value judgements as to what is worthy of inclusion. Maps have always given us more than geographical information alone–as illustrated by the clear contrast between an Aztec map of the city of Tenochtitlan, which only provides details of the rulers of each district, and Norgesatlas (Atlas of Norway) from 1963, where the publisher, Cappelen, due to social considerations, has ‘chosen to include too many place names, rather than too few.’ The Aztec map reflects the hierarchy of a strictly class-based society, while the Norgesatlas represents the golden age of social democracy in which everyone must be included. Both maps were influenced by the values of the age in which they were created.

The same is also true of the writing of this book. I have chosen to give significant attention to the mapping of the northern areas of the world throughout the text–not because the peoples of these areas play any greater role in the history of maps than the Americans, Arabs, British, French, Greeks, Italians, Chinese or Dutch, but simply because this is where I come from and the part of the world in which I live. To the best of my ability, I have attempted to show how broader historical developments–those concerning improved surveys and new methods, new measuring instruments and a greater understanding of the ways and areas in which maps may be used–eventually reached this corner of the world and were taken into use by a poor country with a vast and difficult geography. Norway is characterised by mountains, plateaus, great forests, 25,148 kilometres of coastline and 239,057 islands, and was a Danish colony from 1380 to 1814. The country was also part of a union with Sweden between 1814 and 1905. A number of changes have been made to the original Norwegian text to make the book more accessible to an English-speaking readership.

In 1969, American cartographer Waldo R. Tobler formulated what is known as the First Law of Geography: ‘Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.’ When looking at a new map, the first thing most people seek out is their home town. ‘Some will perhaps search this theatre of ours for a performance of a particular region (since everyone, because they love their place of origin, would like to see it among the rest),’ wrote Ortelius in his preface to Theatrum, so the phenomenon is an old one. And yet once we have found our home town, many of us experience a thrill as we journey through an atlas–pausing to look at Takoradi, Timbuktu and Trincomalee; running our finger along the route taken by the Orient Express, the Silk Road, the Western Front and the boundaries of ancient Rome–and realise that we are just as equally an exotic and inevitable part of the world as any other.

Distance and nearness are relative. Seen from space, the Earth must have seemed like the home town of all humanity. As astronaut William Anders said: ‘We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.’

The oldest surviving map from the Middle Ages was drawn in the late 600s or early 700s. At the top, Christ is shown ruling over the globe, his arms outstretched. Africa is named Cam for Noah’s son Ham, who was said to have travelled south after the Great Flood, while Europe and Asia are named after Noah’s other two sons, Japheth and Shem, although this is difficult to see here. South of Africa is a large Terra inhabitabilis–uninhabitable land. The two longest sets of lines represent the Mediterranean Sea and an unknown sea south of Africa, which cross the Don River and the Nile. The diagonal lines represent the Sea of Azov. Read more here.

The Bedolina Map, carved in stone, probably from around the year 1000 BC. If you make the trip to Val Camonica in the Italian Alps north of Brescia, to the western side of the mountain just past the small town of Capo di Ponte, you can see it for yourself. The area contains several thousand rock carvings, and is therefore protected.


Bedolina, Italy

46° 02′ 00″ N

10° 20′ 29″ E

Val Camonica is a fertile valley in northern Italy, where people have lived for several thousand years. Today it is located somewhat off the beaten track–route E45 and the railway line weave their way from south to north through Verona and the Alps slightly further east. But the valley is a cradle of cartography–home to the 3,000-year-old Bedolina Map.

The map is carved in stone, high up on a mountainside with a good view of the valley. A large, advanced rock carving measuring 4.3 metres wide by 2.4 metres high, it depicts people, animals, warriors and deer in addition to houses, footpaths and rectangular dotted fields–a total of 109 figures representing a village and agricultural landscape as seen from above. But who created this map so long, long ago–and why?

The Romans called the area Vallis Camunnorum–Valley of the Camuni–after the people who had lived there since the Iron Age. Graeco-Roman geographer Strabo mentioned them in his Geographica around the year 1 BC: ‘Next, in order, come those parts of the mountains that are towards the east, and those that bend round towards the south: the Rhaeti and the Vindelici occupy them […]. The Rhaeti reach down as far as that part of Italy which is above Verona […]; and [the] Camuni belong to this stock.’

Around 2,500 years ago, the Camuni came into contact with the Etruscans, a people who lived further south, from whom they learned how to write alphabetic characters. The rock faces near the map feature over 200 textual inscriptions, although nobody has ever managed to decipher and read them. But we can therefore say with some degree of certainty that this was indeed a map, carved into the stone around 3,000 years ago, although we have no written sources to confirm this.

The Bedolina Map is not a geographically correct map–it can’t be used to find the route from one place to another. So then what was its purpose? Italian archaeologist Alberto Marretta believes that the map should be understood in purely symbolic terms–according to Marretta, it represents a crossroads in the history of the people who created it: the transition from a hunting society to an agricultural one. Other rock carvings and archaeological findings from the area show that the Camuni had a landowning aristocracy, and the purpose of the map, Marretta believes, was to show the symbolic power the aristocracy held over the landscape. Maps are always created to fulfil a need, and many of the oldest maps we know of were made to demonstrate ownership of certain areas. Others are more elaborate, and fulfil a religious need to show the place of human beings within the cosmos.

When encountering prehistoric rock carvings and cave paintings, we have to ask ourselves what a map actually is. What distinctive qualities distinguish a map from other motifs? How can we recognise a map when we know little of the society in which it was created? In their preface to the classic work The History of Cartography, editors J. B. Harley and David Woodward provide the following definition: ‘Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes, or events in the human world.’ This definition therefore includes even the most primitive representations of space, and ‘the human world’ refers to our surroundings in the broadest possible sense–including cosmic space and the afterlife. But what constitutes a map ultimately remains a question of interpretation.

Norwegian archaeologist Sverre Marstrander studied rock carvings across the Scandinavian peninsula. In his book Østfold’s jordbruksristninger (Østfold’s Agricultural Rock Carvings), published in 1963, he described ‘some strange, irregular, grid-like patterns,’ which he believed were ‘primitive schematic depictions of a specific type of field complex used in Bronze Age agriculture.’ There could ‘no longer be any doubt,’ Marstrander asserted, ‘that these formations depict ancient fields.’

But Marstrander decided not to call these depictions of fields maps. Instead, he viewed them in the context of the fertility rites intended to ensure that the fields would bear crops. Might another archaeologist have interpreted them along the lines of maps indicating land ownership?

Modern maps are always equipped with explanations–legends that clarify the symbols depicting roads, cities, footpaths, schools and ski trails. Of course, no such explanatory material is available to us when we encounter what we suspect may be a prehistoric map, so we are forced to guess and make interpretations–and anyone who has ever attempted to navigate the icons on an unfamiliar mobile phone knows how difficult this can be. Maps can never be fully translated, and societies have a tendency to simplify symbols to an ever-greater extent, until they ultimately become completely incomprehensible to outsiders. Hidden, symbolic and coded messages are first revealed when cartographers have studied not only what they believe to be a map, but also the entire society that surrounds it. And studying a map created by people who lived thousands of years ago is a demanding exercise.

But on the other hand, we can compare prehistoric works with each other. Minusinsk, Russia, is home to a large rock carving similar to the Bedolina Map, which also features houses, people and animals scattered across a large area almost ten metres in length–this too is a representation of a village. Here, however, the stonecutter was more interested in reproducing the houses than showing how they were situated in relation to each other, and everything is drawn in profile. It is also difficult to say whether the rock carving was created as a single picture; whether the houses were drawn together, or whether new ones were simply added where there was space to draw them on the rock. The comparison suggests that the rock carving at Bedolina is a map, while that in Minusinsk is an image.

MAPS IN THE MIND | The ability to communicate geographical information was developed by certain species long before the age of modern humans–the most widely known of these techniques is the dance honey bees perform to tell each other where flowers can be found. The bee moves up the honeycomb while waggling its tail, before turning to the right in a semicircle, back to the starting point, and beginning the dance again. Then the bee turns down to the left. If the flowers it has found are in the direction of the Sun, the bee dances straight up the honeycomb; if the other bees must fly to the left or right of the Sun to reach the flowers, the bee marks the exact angle in the dance. The further forwards the bee dances, the further away the flowers are; the more intensely the bee waggles its tail, the more enthusiastic it is about its findings. Aristotle noticed that bees must be able to give each other directions: ‘[…] each bee on her return is followed by three or four companions,’ wrote the Greek philosopher in his History of Animals over 2,000 years ago.

The dance of the honey bee has a clear function–the hive gets richer when bees who know where food can be found share this information with the others. The same must have been true of prehistoric peoples–those who were able to communicate where prey, plentiful fruit or fresh water could be found ensured that the community would grow fat and survive. The early humans were nomads, and while our closest relatives, the other apes and Prosimians, lived mainly in the forests, we spent much of our time out on the plains. This resulted in us developing better sight than our predecessors, along with a different relationship to distances, space and direction. Spatial awareness was probably the first part of our primitive consciousness.

Humans also acquired four additional traits that were central to the development of our ability to think in maps. First, the ability to go on exploratory expeditions; second, the ability to store acquired information; third, the ability to abstract and generalise; and fourth, the ability to know what to do with the information. While our ancestors were generally only able to talk about what was happening in the here and now, humans learned to link events in terms of the past, present and future–and to physical space.

Putting the world into words–this tree, that lake and that mountain–makes the world simultaneously larger and smaller, and more comprehensible. It facilitates the dissemination of information, and it is therefore easy to see how the development of spatial awareness and language have helped each other. Because they wished to articulate the maps they had in their heads, prehistoric peoples may have built up a vocabulary to express long and short distances, directions, landmarks and the time it takes to reach a specific location. They may then have created the first maps from sticks and stones, using sand, earth and snow, and making marks with their fingers or a brush on cave walls.

PREHISTORIC MAPS | Humans began creating representations of the world around 40,000 years ago–or at least, the oldest images we know of–depictions of animals painted in black, red and yellow on the walls of the Cave of El Castillo in northern Spain–are from this period. The cave-dwelling peoples here used the pigments they found in clay and soot, and mixed them with fat, wax, blood or water. Rock carvings discovered in Australia are also estimated to be around 40,000 years old.

What is believed to be the world’s oldest map is carved into the tusk of a mammoth. Estimated to be somewhere between 32,500 and 38,000 years old, it was discovered in the Alb-Donau-Kreis region of Germany, and according to German professor Michael A. Rappenglueck is a celestial map of Orion. Rappenglueck also claims that a 17,300-year-old painting discovered in the Lascaux Caves in south-west France, which depicts an ox, a man with a bird’s head and a bird, is a map of the stars Vega, Deneb and Altair, also known as the Summer Triangle–the first stars to become visible on Nordic summer evenings. Rappenglueck illustrates this by drawing three lines between the eyes of the figures.

Not everyone is convinced by Rappenglueck’s theory, but it is logical to think that humans created maps of the stars before creating maps of the landscape–it’s much easier to obtain an overview of the sky than the terrain. The stars hang above us, arranged into formations as if stretched across a canvas or a wall, and are easy to represent using dots. Celestial maps may have played an important role in the earliest agricultural societies–the emergence of certain constellations continues to be used today as a sign of when crops should be sown. But not all prehistoric dot formations are celestial maps.

An illustration of the Bedolina Map, which makes it easier to see what the carving represents. The map depicts six houses and around thirty fields, all connected by small paths, in addition to a ladder, animals and people, all viewed from above. Not until 1934 did anyone begin to wonder whether the carving might be a map.

Rævehøj, on the island of Fyn in Denmark, is situated on a ridge that houses a hidden burial chamber from the Stone Age. Carved into one of the load-bearing stones is an elegant pattern of dots, and in 1920 Danish historian Gudmund Schütte argued that these represented the Plough, Virgo, Gemini, the Tropic of Cancer, Boötes, Leo, Canis and Auriga. But the problem with this theory, as Schütte himself admitted, is that the distances between the various constellations are incorrect, and the carving features more dots than there are stars. It’s easy to see why Schütte was so convinced–the pattern of dots has a striking resemblance to a celestial map. But today’s archaeologists believe the dots form a sun cross–an equal-armed cross within a circle.

In 1967, British archaeologist James Mellaart published a book about the excavations undertaken at the 9,500-year-old city of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, in which he claimed that one of the discovered wall paintings was a map of the city featuring the Mount Hasan Volcano in the background. The map quickly became famous–with many supporting Mellaart’s interpretation.

‘The oldest town plan in existence,’ wrote Jeremy Harwood in To the Ends of the Earth: 100 Maps That Changed the World; ‘The oldest authenticated map in the world,’ wrote J. B. Harley in the UNESCO Courier; ‘The oldest known [map],’ wrote Catherine Delano-Smith in The History of Cartography; ‘The Catal Huyuk map […] is perhaps 2,000 years older than the oldest known writing system,’ asserted James Blaut in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. But was the painting really a map? In 2006, archaeologist Stephanie Meece wrote an article in which she argued that the ‘houses’ are geometric patterns, which have also been found at other locations in Çatalhöyük, and that the ‘volcano’ is actually a leopard skin. Seven years later, a team of geologists tested the map theory by investigating whether Mount Hasan might have erupted around the time at which the map was created. Rock samples showed that the volcano had in fact erupted around 8,900 years ago–and the eruption would have been visible from the city. Does this ultimately prove that the painting is a map? Not necessarily. but it does illustrate how hard it can be to find clear answers to questions about historical artefacts from so long ago.

Our view of prehistory also influences how we view maps from the period, and may result in the under- or overestimation of their existence. First, it was common to underestimate the presence of prehistoric maps–as late as 1980 only four maps that could be said to be from prehistoric times had been properly studied. Then followed a period in which new theories arose around prehistoric religion, the Stone Age people’s way of thinking, the role of symbols in primitive society and the significance of rock carvings. This resulted in the discovery of a number of ‘new’ maps–when the first edition of The History of Cartography was published in 1987, the chapter on prehistoric times in Europe, the Middle East and north Africa concluded with a list of fifty-seven possible maps. Several of these have since been refuted, while others continue to be debated today.

At Talat n’Lisk, in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, is a round cave painting measuring one metre in diameter. Inside the circle is a painstakingly crafted image, thought to show a broad valley flanked by two mountain ranges, and between them a wide river and tributaries as well as two dots, one small and one large, symbolising settlements. The painting is around 6,000 years old.

In the North Caucasus mountains, a 5,000-year-old silver vase was discovered, engraved with two rivers running down from a mountain range to meet at a lake or sea. This may have been an attempt to represent the mountains of the Caucasus region, and two of its rivers.

Another vase, from Tepe Gawra near Mosul in Iraq, features a motif depicting hunters in a wide valley containing a river and tributaries, flanked by high mountains. Some believe the design was painted with a specific landscape in mind, while others believe the image to be more schematic and illustrative of a general phenomenon–hunting–rather than a particular place.

The Cangyuan region of south-west China is home to yet another rock carving reminiscent of the Bedolina Map. At its centre is a village, featuring houses constructed on stilts. That the stonecutter’s aim was to denote space, distances and the positions of these houses is evident from the fact that the houses furthest away are painted upside down, to indicate that their stilts are located against the outermost fence. Towards the village run dotted lines–roads–along which people and animals walk.

Another village is reproduced in stone at Lydenburg in South Africa. The rock carving is large–4.5 by 4 metres–and with its depictions of round settlements within a network of roads is also not unlike the Bedolina Map.

Along the Yenisei River, at Mugur-Sargol in Mongolia, are rock carvings that provide a bird’s-eye view of the local shepherds’ tents and enclosures. Mongolia is also home to many maps of grave sites, some of which illustrate both our world and that of the afterlife.

MAPS OF THE DEAD | Historians estimate that humans first began to imagine the existence of a world other than our own around 100,000 years ago, and graves from this period have been found to contain objects that the dead wished to take with them to the next world. But it was long believed that prehistoric peoples would have been unable to produce maps of anything other than their immediate surroundings–that representing their position relative to the Sun, Moon, stars, realm of the dead and abodes of the gods was far more advanced than their capacity allowed. ‘As a rule […] the maps of primitive peoples are restricted to very small areas […] their maps are concrete […] they cannot portray the world, or even visualise it in their minds. They have no world maps, for their own locality dominates their thought,’ wrote historian of cartography Leo Bagrow in 1964. More recently, however, maps that illustrate how humans viewed themselves in relation to the rest of creation have been discovered. These often feature labyrinths, circles, ladders and trees, and several of them present the various levels that make up the universe, including the heavens, Earth and kingdom of the dead.


  • "Throughout his book, Berg provides sound analysis, reasoned arguments, and strong examples to support his assertions. The book is extremely well researched and clearly written. It is accessible to a general audience, and would be of interest to anyone who enjoys history or maps. While Berg acknowledges that no one can write a book covering all of the history of mapmaking, Theater of the World provides an excellent foundation in the general history of mapmaking in Europe, and the history of Norwegian mapmaking in particular."—Carolyn Hansen, Cartographic Perspectives
  • "A fascinating book that I will always treasure."—Sir Ranulph Fiennes
  • "This wonderful book is a reminder of how much careful thought was given to the shape of the world even in ancient times - the landscape, how places are related to one another. I pored over these maps for hours, imagining those minds hard at work, visualising how it all connected as a whole. Just brilliant."—Neil Oliver
  • "In his gorgeous book, 'Theater of the World,' Thomas Reinertsen Berg provides dozens of full-color maps along with fascinating details about the history of attempts to represent geographical space...Readers can expect to spend happy hours with this book, tracing routes and reading reports of adventuring navigators."—Lorraine Berry, The Washington Post
  • "Thomas Reinertsen Berg's THEATER OF THE WORLD: The Maps that Made History is a thorough study of cartography, past and present. But more than that, it's an exploration of what maps mean and why we'll never stop trying to document the world arounds us."—Hannah Walhout, Travel + Leisure
  • "This engagingly Illustrated four-color history detailing mapmaking from the antiquities to the modern day is a treasure-trove for real and armchair travelers."—John J. Kelly, The Detroit Free Press
  • "Fascinating...sumptuously produced with lots of full-colour images, is a kind of potted treasury of cartographical history that gleams with piece-of-eight-like snippets of information...this is an enthralling book, and joins the likes of Simon Garfield's On the Map and Jerry Brotton's A History of the World in Twelve Maps in the field of popular reaffirmations of the ingenuity of geography."
    Travis Elborough, The Spectator
  • "This beautiful collection of historic maps will resonate with folks prone to wanderlust and those longing for a sense of place. A Norwegian journalist mines the human desire to explore while sharing lush cartography from the Stone Age to the age of exploration to modern satellite imagery."—Garden & Gun
  • "Armchair travelers and international adventurers follow maps around the world, and in this handsome and compelling book, Norwegian journalist and writer Berg focuses on the creation of maps. Segueing from Stone to Internet Age, he relates stories of how maps were created, reflected value judgments, and shifted over time. Berg's idiosyncratic book is not merely a collection of maps but rather a cartographic history - a rich, diverse story of how art, technology, and human impulses jostle, with mapping and money hand in hand, raising the question of whether Google is too dominant a force in the map service business."—The National Book Review
  • "The visual exploration that is Theater of the World: The Maps that Made History makes for the perfect bonding experience with you and your pops...Feast your eyes on the vibrant history of mapmaking and its illustrated evolution across centuries. Best enjoyed amongst history buffs in a cigar-filled study with leather armchairs."—Jahla Seppanen, The Manual
  • "Visually's gone straight to the top of my Christmas present list."—The Bookseller

On Sale
Dec 4, 2018
Page Count
432 pages

Thomas Reinertsen Berg

About the Author

Thomas Reinertsen Berg is a Norwegian journalist and writer. He has written for several Norwegian papers including Morgenbladet, Klassekampen, and Dagsavisen. Theater of the World, his first book, was honored with the 2017 Brageprisen, an award given annually to Norway’s premier non-fiction book.

Learn more about this author