This Interactive Tool Lets You Explore Centuries of Old Maps at Once

OldMapsOnline revamped its capabilities to map famous people, rulers, battles, and more through time and geography.
Exploring OldMapsOnline is great way to spend an hour or five.
Exploring OldMapsOnline is great way to spend an hour or five. / Cristian Baitg/Moment/Getty Images

How much of an area’s history can be told in a succession of maps?

After you spend half an hour on the revamped OldMapsOnline, it will seem like a lot. If you’ve come to this long-standing repository of antique atlas pages just for the maps, the website’s new setup has a side panel of historic maps from the area and period selected. Click the old map and see it superimposed over the site’s smooth Google Maps-like surface. 

OldMapsOnline also launched an interactive feature called TimeMap. Users can home in on a part of a world map and use a slider to scroll from 4000 BCE to the present day and see the establishments and dissolutions of countries and kingdoms, and watch national borders form and erode.

Zero in on Mexico and Central America, for example. One can scroll through the formation of the Maya civilization, the comings and goings of neighboring societies, the Spanish invasion of nearby islands and then the mainland, and the fall of the Aztecs and then the Maya. Next comes the rise of the British-aligned Mosquito Kingdom, then the establishment of Mexico and the Federal Republic of Central America, the latter’s separation into smaller nations, and finally, Panama’s U.S.-backed secession from Colombia to appease American interest in a canal.

The experience is repeatable in any area. You can watch geographically massive countries like China and Russia expand from their starting points, see powers like the Ottoman Empire and Prussia fade away into modern-day states, or observe how colonial powers wiped away the kingdoms of Africa and carved up the continent. Rummaging through this project, you are never far from historic tragedy and injustice.

It can also be fun to compare regions. During Cleopatra’s lifetime, for instance, there were only a handful of European countries we would recognize today, while most of central Asia consisted of territories of nomadic groups.

Three icons provide an extra stream of information. Click the rulers icon to see the heads of state and governors during the selected year. You can do the same with historic battles. The people icon allows you to see which famous individuals from the region were then alive, presenting some interesting juxtapositions, like the fact that the lifespans of Britons John Maynard Keynes and Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead briefly overlapped.

You can click on most of the references on the map and get its Wikipedia article in a sidebar for an extra detour down the rabbit hole.

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