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Mystery of Ptolemy code is finally solved!

Germany: A 2nd century map of Germania by scholar Ptolemy has always stumped scholars, who were unable to relate the places depicted in the map with the known settlements. Now, a group of classical philologists, mathematical historians and surveying experts at Berlin Technical University’s Department for Geodesy and Geoinformation Science, have cracked the code, revealing that half of Germany’s cities are 1,000 years older than previously thought. For example, Rome is said to have been founded in the year 753. For the city of St. Petersburg, records even indicate the precise day the first foundation stone was laid.

The Berlin-based team pored over the recalcitrant data for six years, working together to develop a so-called “geodetic deformation analysis” that would help to correct the map’s mistakes.

The result is an index that pinpoints the hometowns of the legendary figures Siegfried and Arminius to within 10 to 20 kilometres (6 to 12 miles). A new book, “Germania und die Insel Thule” (“Germania and the Island of Thule”), has just been published about the project. The publisher, Darmstadt-based WBG, calls it a “sensation.”

The map shows that both the North and Baltic Seas were known as the “Germanic Ocean” and the Franconian Forest in northern Bavaria was “Sudeti Montes.” The map indicates three “Saxons’ islands” off the Frisian coast in northwestern Germany — known today as Amrum, Föhr and Sylt.

It also shows a large number of cities. The eastern German city that is now called Jena, for example, was called “Bicurgium,” while Essen was “Navalia.” Even the town of Fürstenwalde in eastern Germany appears to have existed 2,000 years ago. Its name then was “Susudata,” a word derived from the Germanic term “susutin,” or “sow’s wallow” — suggesting that the city’s skyline was perhaps less than imposing.

The great mathematician and astronomer Ptolemy drew the map in 150 AD. He embarked on a project to depict the entire known world. Living in Alexandria, in the shadow of its monumental lighthouse, the ancient scholar drew 26 maps in coloured ink on dried animal skins.

Ptolemy demonstrated extensive knowledge of this remote area, indicating the locations of mountains, rivers and islands. An index lists 94 “poleis,” or cities, noting their latitude and longitude accurately to within a few minutes.

Yet the data the ancient geographer used is distorted. Errors of scale crept in as he transcribed the Earth’s sphere to the flat plane of a map. Ptolemy believed the northern lands to be narrower and more elongated than they are and bent Jutland in Denmark and Schleswig-Holstein in Germany too far to the east.

Ptolemy also failed to accurately connect the different parts of his map. Mistakes worked their way in despite his attempts to locate calibration points to tie together his patchwork of geographical information. The inevitable result was confusion.

Linguists and historians have tried repeatedly to decode the yellowed document — in vain. Among researchers, it came to be known as an “enchanted castle,” a mystery no one could crack. Access to Germany’s prehistory was believed closed off forever. But now, the ancient map appears to be revealing its secrets at last.