Ancient maps for a modern world

The Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World weighs in at more than nine pounds of artistic and scholarly collaboration.

 It is the work of more than 180 academics and cartographers. In 99 maps, the atlas documents for the modern world the area of Greek and Roman occupation from the ninth century B.C. to the fifth century A.D.
“One of the greatest achievements in 20th-century Greek and Roman scholarship, and it probably will never be superseded” is how Publisher’s Weekly described the atlas when it was published 10 years ago.

Dr. Richard Talbert, Kenan professor of history at UNC since 1988, is the man behind the creation of this resource used by scholars worldwide and behind the move to digitize such valuable maps. In 1987 The American Philological Association found Talbert between projects. They asked him to produce a consistent and up-to-date conspectus of the Greek and Roman world, a project at which many had failed in the past.

“This has taken over my life by a set of accidents,” he says. “I’m a great believer in going where there are interesting things to be done.”

Talbert knocked on the doors of experts all over the globe. He built bridges between historians and cartographers. He handled the spinning plates of scholar, cheerleader, communicator and fundraiser, all while continuing to teach at Carolina. In 2000, the atlas was finished, the only document of its kind in more than 100 years.

At first, Talbert considered the book “a fixed monument.” But this was before the digital era. He knew it was coming; he just didn’t know when. But during the making of the book, he says, “the ground was moving under our feet.”

The Ancient World Mapping Center, created 10 years ago to secure the book’s legacy, will usher in its future. Now an office in Davis Library where undergraduates and doctoral students produce maps by strokes of keys, the center has the technology to make possible a digital reproduction of the atlas and give them the ability to modify it as scholars uncover new information.

“Although initially conceived as an end, we’ve realized we are just at the beginning,” Talbert says. “It’s definitely on the agenda.”

Talbert and the center’s director, history lecturer Dr. Brian Turner, consider this a great part of the center’s mission: providing an education for up-and-coming classical and historical scholars at Carolina and a way to adapt academic information for teaching younger historians, too. Having grown up in a digital world, the students add the extra hands and talent necessary to carry the center into the realm of digital cartography.

“Our students are on the cutting edge. They’ve made an invaluable contribution.”

The center’s most recent accomplishment is a set of maps, the Routledge Wall Maps for the Ancient World. Part teaching tool, part wall art, the seven maps show different parts of the ancient world broken into pieces, such as the Roman Empire, Greece and Persia in the time of Alexander the Great, and Egypt and the Near East from 1200 to 500 BCE. The center also provides maps for scholars’ new books, maps for teachers (available for download for free from the website), and even for the occasional board game or theater program.

“We’ve always wanted people to be able to use our maps,” Talbert says, “to provide knowledge, to open perspectives that they might not have.”