Giving access to all the world’s history: an online atlas for teachers and students

Peter Britton

Project director, Timemaps

 

Introduction:

Finding resources for the study of world history can be challenging. There are plenty of books, websites and other resources on particular civilizations or epochs, but it can stretch departmental budgets to buy separate resources for each topic (are Australian schools’ history budgets as limited as British ones?). On the other hand, texts which cover the entire history of the world can have a tendency, either to cover each individual civilization so sketchily that it is not easy to develop meaty teaching materials based on them; or to focus on those elements within world history which link civilizations to each other – trade, religion, technological developments and so on – to such an extent that the civilizations themselves almost vanish into the background.

A new free website seeks to address these problems. The TimeMap of World History (1) is currently in the process of being built, but already contains enough content to be useful to teachers and their students. It covers the years 3500 BC up to around AD 1000 (maybe later by the time you read this), and takes in all the regions of the world. When finished it will cover all history up to the present day.

Its purpose is to give easy (and free) access to the history of all countries of the world, as well as to bring in to sharp focus the many themes which straddle many countries or regions. The intention is to enable people, from all around the world and from different cultures, to gain a clear idea of the history of humankind as a whole.

This is important for all sorts of reason, and looking at proposals for Australia’s new national curriculum in history (2), it looks as though the arguments have been won here, unlike in Britain. Perhaps this is due to the fact that China, the coming great power, is likely to have more of an impact on Australia’s future than distant Britain. Nevertheless we here in Britain live in just as global a society as anywhere else, and it behoves us to adapt our mindset accordingly.

 

Features

Most pages in the atlas consist of a map accompanied by some explanatory text. Beneath the map/text combination is a timeline, which acts as a navigation tool as well as a diagram giving a chronological context to the map. Other navigation tools are present on the page, allowing the user to move forward to the next map, or backward to the previous map, or “upwards” to a more larger-scale map, or “downwards” to a smaller-scale map.

The atlas is structured around a series of map sequences. At the top level there is a sequence of maps of the whole world. Within these maps are links to sequences covering the main historic regions of the world – North America, South America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, East Asia, South East Asia, and Oceania (it is anticipated that Central Asia will be added later).

These regional maps in turn contain links to sequences dealing with the histories of different nations – or, rather, of the different geographical “spaces” filled by the nations of the modern world. Large nations have their own space, whilst smaller nations appear as part of larger spaces. Only such micro-states as Monaco and Liechtenstein are not represented in the map pages.

 

The importance of regional histories

The atlas’ geographical structure as outlined above allows users to follow the histories of the large regions of the world as well as of individual countries. This can be very illuminating. In most cases, there is a considerable degree of commonality within regional histories. East Asian history, for example, is knit together by such developments as the struggle between Confucianism and Buddhism, and the development of sophisticated bureaucracies. If one studies Chinese history separately from Japanese history, it is easy to miss the huge impact which Confucianism, Buddhism and other facets of Chinese culture have had throughout the whole of East Asia. It becomes clear, as no national study can show, that such trends constituted major developments in world history, whose impact is by no means expended today.

Regional treatments also allow the stories of individual countries to be seen in a sharper light. For example, if one looks at the histories of medieval France, Germany and England separately, one notes the conflicts between church and state in each country, and assigns to it a certain importance. If one looks at the European stage as a whole, on the other hand, one sees that the tussle between the spiritual and temporal authorities was a titanic struggle which shaped the political and social evolution of the whole of Christendom. The contrast between developments in France, where the monarchs cast themselves as allies of the Church, and in Germany, where they found themselves at loggerheads with it, directly led to the rise of an absolutist state in the former and a weak and fragmented collection of mini-states in the latter. Both these lines of evolution determined the course of European history in different but interlinked ways.

 

A chronological backbone

Chronologically, the different map sequences – global, regional and national – are organized around a uniform series of dates. This means that users can jump around the atlas and always know where they are, both in time and space. They can hop from a world map to a regional map and then to a country map, and back again, and remain at the same date. If they move to another date in a map sequence, they can then jump “upwards” or “downwards” within that date.

The set of dates form the backbone to the atlas. The effect is to give a sequence of “snapshots” of the world at different dates, to be explored at world, regional or national levels.

The purpose is to make for an overall structure that is simple to understand, allows quick and easy navigation, and helps users to keep track of where they are, both geographically and chronologically, in the great mass of world history.

The usefulness of the atlas’s structure, therefore, depends to a large extent upon the choice of historical dates around which it is based. The original idea was in fact to have one map for every year. It was very soon realised, however, that from a user’s point of view this was impracticable. For much of the time, it would have been somewhat akin to watching paint dry.

 

Choosing dates

So, which dates to include, which to leave out? The basic criteria decided upon was to select those dates which allowed all the world’s history to be divided up into comprehensible time periods. Given the fact that the “pace” of history – which to a large extent means the varying amount of recorded data at any given time – increases the nearer one gets to the present, then the dates should get closer together as history passes.

Given this criteria, the dates almost began to select themselves.

The dates for the early part of the Ancient World are all round numbers: 3500 BC, 2500 BC, 1500 BC, 1000 BC. (The old dating conventions of BC and AD are used simply because the English National Curriculum does not refer to BCE and CE, and the atlas was originally developed for a British audience.) The data simply does not allow for any more accurate dating. However, this allows the ebb and flow of the first civilizations to be traced in clear outline.

The “Classical” period of the Ancient World, which, interestingly, occurred at around the same time in all the major civilizations of the Eastern Hemisphere, can be followed in the dates 500 BC (the time of the Buddha, Confucius, the earlier Greek philosophers and the later Hebrew prophets), 200 BC (when the the Mauryan empire in South Asia, the unification of China, and Alexander the Great and his successors can be discussed); 30 BC (a good date to look at the backwash from the great events covered at 200 BC – China has known nearly two centuries of peace under the Han emperors, India has fallen into political fragmentation, and the west has been taken over by the Romans). Two more dates, AD 200 and AD 500, allow the final period of the Ancient World to be covered. By this time, Pre-Columbian American civilization is reaching a peak with the Mayans.

Thereafter, the dates become more individual, selected more on their own individual merits. 750 is a suitable date for showing the Islamic Caliphate and the Chinese Tang empire at thier height (they in fact share a border in central Asia). Europe is dominated by the Franks, who will soon get Charlemagne as their king.

The gap between 750 and 979 covers the decline and collapse of the Tang empire and the rebuilding of Chinese unity under the Song (979 is the date when that process is completed), the first great period of Japanese civilization, the fragmentation of the Islamic caliphate (979 is a good time to look at this process, with the rise of one of the great regional Islamic states under the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt), and, in Europe, the expansion of Christendom, both in the Catholic west and the Orthodox east.

The period from 979 to 1215 sees an astonishing flowering of pre-modern Chinese civilization, with the invention of the compass, gunpowder and movable-type printing; the emergence, in South Asia, of the first of a series of great Islamic states which will dominate that region until the coming of the British; and the gradual climb out of barbarism in early Medieval Europe.

The year 1453 is an excellent date at which to pause and look at the world before the era of European expansion. This year, indeed, sees the great Christian defeat with the capture of Constantinople by the Muslim Ottomans. South Asia is divided amongst several powerful regional states, all deploying gunpowder armies against each other; and China is ruled by the great Ming empire, which has recently built the Forbidden City in Beijing, refurbished to Great Wall (modern-day tourists walk on their work), upgraded the Grand Canal, and sailed great fleets as far afield as East Africa, perhaps further. In Europe, however, the Renaissance is underway and Henry the Navigator is organizing his voyages down the coast of Africa.

1648 is a good date to show China at the start of the Qing dynasty, the Ottoman empire at its greatest extent, and the Mogul empire. In Europe, of course, this is the year of the Treaty of Westphalia, marking the end of the period of religious wars which followed the Reformation.

Thereafter the criteria for the selection of dates gets more Euro-centric, reflecting the fact that European civilization from now on makes its mark right around the world; although what is striking is that only one date, 1914, shows Western empires dividing the world between themselves: even forty years before, in 1871, most of Africa and eastern Asia remains under local rule.


The broader context: links between civilizations

The fact that the different map sequences are united by the same set of dates has significant benefits for users.

Firstly, it means that civilizations can be seen clearly within their broad context, which in turn means that the links between civilizations become much clearer.

Is this important? If one wants to understand the great processes of history, yes it is. Most obviously, for example, Roman civilization cannot be understood without knowing about its deep debt to the Greeks (and also, of course, to the Etruscans) – and the atlas shows very clearly the geographical and historical context in which Roman power grew.

The rise of Greek civilization, on the other hand, cannot be understood without seeing its links with the ancient Middle East, including Egypt and Mesopotamia. In this context the Phoenicians suddenly stand out starkly as key players in world history – and not just for their contribution to the West. The alphabet which they developed became the foundation for the Greek, Latin and other European alphabets, but also for the Aramaic and Sanskrit scripts, upon which all other Middle Eastern and Indian alphabets would be based.

Another example is the place of Arabic civilization in world history. Its location in both time and space – between the India of the Gupta (where many of the foundations for modern mathematics had been developed), the China of the Tang (where such technological innovations as paper and early printing appeared) and the Europe of the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines and medieval states – go a long way towards explaining the Arabs’ distinctive contribution to human progress.

Similar considerations are true for every civilization and society in world history.

 

A case study: Ancient Egypt

Digital presentations on Ancient Egypt created by American schoolchildren (3), many of which are of a remarkably high standard, tend to exhibit very little sense of the chronological and geographic space occupied by that civilization. There is little comprehension that Ancient Egypt (A) lasted a long time, (B) that its civilization changed over time, and (C) that the world around it changed out of all recognition.

Typically, the students will include in their presentation four or five topics: Mummies, the Pyramids, Tutenkhamun, possibly the Valley of the Kings, and very often Cleopatra. It is easy to see how these topics have come to the fore: apart from Cleopatra, they represent major archaeological remains from this long dead civilization. As for Cleopatra, she is famous and beguiling – how could she be left out?

However, there is little feeling – usually none at all – for the fact that a thousand years separates the building of the Pyramids on the one hand, and the reign of Tutenkhamun on the other. As for Cleopatra, most academic historians would not place her within the locale of Ancient Egyptian civilization at all: when she lived and reigned, that civilization had to all intense and purposes been dead for half a millennium. She belongs much more to the world of the Greeks and the Romans than to Ancient Egypt (she was, after all, a direct descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals, and was of almost pure Macedonian descent).

Using the atlas, on the other hand, students will easily see that Ancient Egyptian civilization was amongst the very first civilizations to flourish in recorded history, and that its history lasted for a long period of time (longer than the present day is from the Ancient Greeks and Romans). They will also see how the wider world changed. For example, in the political sphere, when their civilization emerged in the Nile Valley, the Egyptians formed the most powerful state in the region (in fact, one of the only organized states in the world). When the kingdom of Ancient Egypt finally expired as an independent state, nearly two and a half thousand years later, many powerful states had come and gone, some of which dwarfed it in size and strength. It was finally absorbed into the huge Persian empire, a superstate far larger and stronger than Egypt had ever been.

So, a valuable exercise, which can be done either as a whole class or with students in small groups, is to look at the whole world at the start of Egyptian history, in 3500 BC (the first map in the Atlas), and investigate what was happening in different parts of the world. If the class contains students from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, all the better – they can focus in on their region of origin and find out how their ancestors were living at that time, in Britain? In Greece? In SE Asia?

Then the students can go forward a thousand years to the next map in the atlas, dated 2500 BC, and ask, what’s changed from 3500 BC – within Egypt itself? (Egypt is now a unified kingdom,and the Great Pyramids are being built) outside its borders? (Mesopotamian civilization has expanded, and a new civilization has appeared on the Indus, but otherwise things are not that much different from the first map).

The same can be done with the next map (1500 BC) and the two after that (1000 BC and 500 BC). Students will see the world changing before their eyes: new civilizations and empires rising and falling, new technologies appearing, new ways of life becoming dominant (e.g. in 500 BC, the Greek city state have emerged).

When finally the Egyptian state is snuffed out, by 500 BC, it is interesting to then look right back to 2500 BC, when the Pyramids were being built, and compare the two maps.

This exercise will give students a much clearer idea of Ancient Egypt’s place in world history than they previously had – and this is important. It allows them to think about the links between Ancient Egypt and other civilizations – how did other nations affect the Egyptians? How did Egypt affect other civilization? What, therefore, was the place of Ancient Egypt in the ongoing story of mankind?

Studying Ancient Egypt lends itself well to this map-by-map approach, because of its longevity. But the same sort of exercise can be done in abbreviated form with every civilization studied – what was the world like at its beginning? What civilizations were flourishing at that time, from which it could draw influences? What was the world like when it ended? What civilizations will it, in its turn, influence?

This could, of course, be a jumping off point for a look at the nature of the influences between civilizations (ideas, technologies, art styles and so on), and the mechanisms for their transfer (trade, conflict, missionaries).

 

Some benefits (and pitfalls) of the atlas’ structure: the highways and byways of world history

One major advantage of the atlas’ structure is that it forces the inclusion of much more history than other, more linear approaches. Books, printed atlases or websites on world history can limit themselves more or less to history’s highlights. The byways of history can be left out or marginalized. But this a pity, and can lead to some profound weaknesses in the understanding of history. So, for example, Egypt is one of the most popular topics in the Ancient World, but what happened after it was famous? How and why did the civilization of Ancient Egypt gradually vanish? For the Egyptians themselves, what came after? What were the processes by which the majority of Egyptians have come to regard themselves as Arabs first, Egyptians second (after all, the great majority are descended from the inhabitants of Ancient Egypt rather than Ancient Arabia; and other Muslim peoples, such as the Iranians, have never come to see themselves as Arabs). What contribution, if any, has Egypt made to the wider world since ancient times? (The answer is, a great deal: for example, as the leading centre of Islamic learning for many centuries, and as the commercial bridge between the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean trade routes, Egypt was a channel for maritime and commercial techniques pioneered in the Indian Ocean, such as double-entry book keeping, joint-stock trading companies and lateen sails, to pass to Medieval Europeans.)

But there are draw-backs, too, to the atlas’ structure, not so much for the user as for its authors. One of the most dramatic examples of this is Australia before European contact. With no wish to devalue aboriginal history, how can an historian find something meaningful to say on pre-contact Australia for every one of the selected dates around which the atlas is structured? The evidence for aboriginal history is almost entirely archaeological, and therefore relates to processes of change which manifested themselves over hundreds, if not thousands, of years. There may well have been many significant developments between, say, 750 and 979, but we know nothing about them. The solution the authors have currently chosen is to treat aboriginal history as a part of the broader history of the Pacific ocean region until recent times.

Another, more subtle, example is to do with Iranian history during the period of the great Persian empire of the sixth to fourth centuries BC. Most modern sources deal with the history and organization of the empire as a a whole, not with Iran itself. The authors of the atlas had to dig deep to find out how this homeland of a vast empire fared during the greatest period of its history.

 

The Big Picture

One of the major benefits that can be gained from the “Big Picture” approach which the atlas embodies is that it highlights inter-regional or multi-regional processes more clearly than more locally-based approaches. An early example which may or may not be considered significant, but which I think is quite interesting, is that Tasmania and the Torres Straits islands became separated from the Australian mainland around 6000 BC. On the other side of the world the same drop in sea levels created the British Isles.

More recently, and perhaps of more historical interest for most, is the tide of civilization’s advance and retreat in the Ancient World. The core area around which civilization advanced and retreated was in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East. From here it spread west (to Crete and the Aegean), and east (to the Indus Valley). However, in both these regions it later vanished, and the civilized way of life (cities, literacy etc) retreated back to its core areas. Later still, the advance of civilization resumed, taking in the old area of the Aegean Sea and northern India, and expanding far beyond.

If one were studying only the west, or only India, the mulit-regional dimension to this process of advance, retreat and renewed advance would not be spotted – in fact, I’m no sure it HAS been noticed, even in world history studies. But with the structure of the atlas as it is, it becomes very apparent.

Is it significant? Yes, in that it gives us an insight into the changing nature of ancient civilizations and their technology base. Civilization built on Bronze Age technology was inherently vulnerable: only a small ruling elite enjoyed its benefits, and it was highly dependent upon fragile, long-distance trade routes (for tin and copper, the alloys which make up bronze). Bronze-Age civilizations on the periphery of the civilized zones were particularly vulnerable, and so succumbed when the going got tough.

With the spread of iron technology, however, civilization became much more deeply established. Iron is far more common and cheaper to use than bronze (or tin and copper, bronze’s constituents), as well as being tougher and more flexible. Iron-Age civilizations were a great deal more productive (after all, the preceding Bronze-Age societies grew their food using basically Stone-Age technology); they were not dependant upon far-lung trade routes in the same way as Bronze-Age ones were; and the benefits of Iron-Age technology were more evenly distributed throughout society: iron implements could be used by peasant farmers to prepare their fields, and iron weapons by farmer-soldiers to challenge the power of kings and aristocrats.

It is no coincidence that both the areas where civilization had first come to, and then vanished from, during the Bronze Age, and then returned after the Iron-Age had arrived, soon produced the first republics in history. And it was in these republics, in both regions, where revolutionary thinkers flourished (the philosophers of Ancient Greece and the founders of the new religions of Buddhism and Jainism in India).

 

Conclusions

The atlas is designed to give easy access to all the world’s history; to allow users to follow the stories of individual nations, empires and civilizations, and also to explore the broader processes of history which shaped them. In this way it is hoped to enable students to understand the past in new, fascinating and important ways.

It is not yet complete; history has not been covered to the present day. And even once it has been so covered, there will be plenty to do. The content of the atlas will be extended to deal with the general themes of world history – conflict, power, trade, technology, culture, beliefs – much more explicitly. It will include more local treatments, for example of individual states or regions within the larger nations, and individual cities around the world. It will include many more essays covering all aspects of world history.

The Timemaps project team is also under increasing pressure to build an atlas with more accessible reading levels for junior high school students. However, there is a growing range of Dynamic History Maps currently aimed fair and square at the 12-14 age range. These deal with such diverse topics as the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, the Rise of Islam, the Black Death, and European Exploration and Discovery (4).

There is much to do – and we are looking for contributors! If this is a project to which you feel you could make a contribution, please get in touch.

 

Notes and references:

(1) Timemaps Atlas of World History:

http://www.timemaps.com

(2) Ausralian National Curriculum for History: http://www.australiancurriculum.edu.au/History/Curriculum/F-10

(3) The author is history consultant to the British educational broadband provider, E2BN , and in this role evaluates student-created presentations from around the world.

(4) A list of these can be found at:

http://www.timemaps.com/products