BARRINGTON ATLAS OF THE GREEK AND ROMAN WORLD. Edited by Richard J A Talbert. Princeton University Press. 272 pages, 99 full colour maps. With map-by-map directory on CD-Rom pound;155With CD-Rom plus two-volume print edition pound;220. (pre-publication prices to November 30) UK orders: 0800 243407.
You could argue that map-making was one of the first and most instinctive forms of literacy. The map-maker puts a series of dots, lines, shades and shapes on a piece of paper and, because we understand what a map is, we use our imaginations to draw in roads, towns and mountains, and have a rough idea as to how they're distributed.
Long before the Egyptians developed hieroglyphics, people were recording what they saw. This summer, archaeologists in the Lascaux caves in France discovered a prehistoric "map" - showing a section of the summer night sky painted on a cave wall 16,500 years ago. And despite the distance in time and culture, modern astronomers can still read the pattern and see what the map recorded.
It's a tremendously efficient way of recording complex ideas. In a map of a railway network or the London Underground, a huge amount of easily-understood information is stored in a few simple lines and colours, which we can "read" without even thinking about it.
As well as helping us understand a place or perspective, maps have also been used to aid our understanding of other times. Historians and archaeologists have long used maps to build up a picture of an era, adding details as new discoveries emerge and seeking to reach a fuller picture of how earlier cultures lived and traded ideas and goods.
The big daddy of archaeological mapping must be the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, a new atlas that aims to provide a comprehensive picture of the ancient world - from about 1,000 bc to ad 640 - using the most modern mapping techniques available.
This is mapping on an epic scale, with a team of 70 historians and archaeologists contributing to a pound;2.7 million project over two decades. The result is intended to be a deeper and more accurate rendering of the ancient world than has ever been achieved before - and it's been published in the United States, by Princeton University Press, with simultaneous publication in the UK.
Using satellite mapping, the project has sought to recreate the physical landscape of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Coastlines have since shifted and river estuaries have changed their shapes, forests have been cleared and marshlands have been drained, but the researchers have sought to re-map the contemporary features.
The historians have added all the archaeological detail available - the lines of roads, the locations and names of settlements and towns, canals and aqueducts, mines and orts. It's a kind of classical Ordnance Survey map, showing what you might have seen as you rattled down the Appian Way in your state-of-the-art chariot a couple of thousand years ago. For instance, the maps for Britain show the equivalent of Roman motorways - and the places you might have passed between Londinium and Portus Dubris (London and Dover) and the tribes who lived there (the Cantiaci).
And it's interesting to compare the relative emptiness of the Roman map of Britain with the evidence of much denser urbanisation and development in Italy and southern France.
The project director is Professor Richard Talbert, of the University of North Carolina. "Anyone who's interested in classical antiquity hasn't had an adequate map for well over a century," he says. "The only comparable one was published by John Murray in London in the 1870s. Since then, of course, everything has been transformed - we know far more about the ancient world."
The application of precise modern mapping techniques to classical scholarship produces "a novel and exciting vision of the ancient world", he says - and packed into the 99 maps on 272 pages is what is claimed as 100 years'-worth of scholarly study.
The area covered spans the limits of the known world of the Greeks and Romans, as far as the Indian sub-continent, north Africa and the far-flung northern outpost of Britannia, along with the European and Middle-Eastern heartlands of their empires. Many areas have never been previously surveyed in terms of their Greek and Roman heritage - and the project team says all the maps bring a previously unachieved level of detail and accuracy. According to Professor Talbert, the degree to which Greeks and Romans made and used maps is "controversial".
"Greek scientists, such as Ptolemy, without doubt were sophisticated cartographers, but they seem to have lived in an ivory tower. Maps weren't disseminated and exploited by society at large, not even by Roman emperors. Romans did use large-scale maps and plans of land division and cities, and they also drew road maps, but - surprisingly - no other types of map seem to have been in common use."
Alongside the maps, a CD-Rom documents all the entries for places or features. These give the modern names for the places shown - and where there are entries such as a fort or a canal or whatever, there are references for the archaeological evidence.
"The Barrington Atlas is unashamedly a modern view of the classical world. As long as we recognise this, there's nothing to apologise for," says Professor Talbert. "Cartography is one of the fundamental tools we bring to our examination of any period - one which the many people interested in ancient Greece and Rome have been too long without."
The website for the atlas is at: www.unc.edudeptscl_atlasindex.htmlPrimary globes, page 24