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Ptolemy’s Germania

3 October 2010

Spiegel Online at www.spiegel.de/international/zeitgeist/0,518,720513,00.html says researchers have cracked Ptolemy’s map of Germania and that settlements existed at a surprising number of towns some 2000 years ago. Anything east of the Rhine is historically obscure and most places are not mentioned in documents until the Middle Ages. According to Tacitus the Germans lived in thatched huts and dug out houses,and fed themselves on a diet of gruel. Nothing wrong with that as people in eastern Europe still have a similar diet and even peasants in other parts of Europe lived on stews of various kinds until fairly recently. However, diet withstanding, a team of philologists, mathematical historians, and surveyors at Berlin University (they have a dept of Geodesy, and Geoinformation Sciences) has produced a map of central Europe as it was 2000 years ago. The North Sea and the Baltic Sea were both called the Germanic Ocean and there were three Saxon islands off the coast of Frisia in NW Germany – which are indentified by them with three small islands that stilll exist. Towns such as Jena, Essen and Furstenwalde existed to the east. The work is drawn from the astronomer Ptolemy who in 150AD embarked on a project to depict the known world. Ptolemy demonstrated extensive knowledge of Germania, from the location of mountains, rivers and islands and some 94 large settlements, noting the latitude and longitude fairly accurately. It includes towns on the Vistula in Poland – and he knew all about the geography of the Baltic coast and its rivers and streams which is possibly not really so extraordinary as there was an extensive trade in Baltic amber. He was an academic living in Alexandria and therefore his information came from other people – Romans that were traders, seafarers abd travellers as well as the military – especially military engineers. Roman legions, in spite of what has been said in the past, are known to have campaigned extensively in the German heartland. The idea was to keep the tribes beyond the immediate borders of the Empire quiet – and subdued. However, the data of Ptolemy is not exact – it is distorted. Ptolemy thought the northern lands were much narrower than they are – and bent Jutland and Schleswig-Holstein over towards the east. Different parts of the map were not calibrated correctly leading to a great deal of confusion and linguists and historians have periodically spent time trying to decode the map. They think they have managed to do it this time – but three islands off the coast of Frisia. Are they really three small pieces of land that still exist today? Might they reflect larger islands in the North Sea?

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