This interdisciplinary research project aimed at linking cutting-edge research in cognitive linguistics with studies in ancient geography. Cognitive linguistic approaches usually deal with synchronic processes, whereas the study of ancient texts necessarily implies the adoption of a diachronic perspective. The combination of these two methods allowed to gain a unique insight into the conceptualization of spatial categories in the ancient world.


The research group argued that mental models or cognitive maps are based on elementary gestalt principles (like figure-ground asymmetries). Mental models and cognitive maps are essential for us to figure out and remember the spatial structure of our environment. They combine forms of implicit and explicit knowledge such as the practice of wayfinding and navigation. Cognitive maps often include landmarks, frames of reference (that is, different coordinate systems encoded linguistically as, e.g., left / right, in front of / behind, north / south, downriver / upriver), collections of toponyms, and other cues that help to mentally “triangulate” a reference system. These cognitive approaches allow us to understand better what has been called the “hodological” principle of ancient geographical texts: ancient mental maps did not look like our modern maps, but rather like networks or even like loosely connected bundles of lines corresponding to roads, paths and coastlines.


While in the project´s first volume “Features of common sense geography”  (ed. Klaus Geus & Martin Thiering) the basic ideas of the research were outlined, the second volume “Features of Common Sense Geography , Vol. II: Landmarks. Wien/Berlin: LIT”  focuses on what is arguably the one paramount element of mental modelling in ancient geographical texts: landmarks. “Landmark” refers to any kind of culture-specific environmental reference point. This can be mountains, rivers, buildings, trees, reefs, roads, rocks etc. Landmarks on land and at sea are used as proximate course-maintaining devices. These landmarks shape and determine a detailed topographical cognitive map of the environment as represented via language and cultural practices.

In several other chapters and articles, the members of the project have addressed fundamental questions of common sense geography with case studies from ancient geographical texts. These case studies, especially based on Herodotus´ Histories (5th century BC) and Strabo´s Geography (early 1st century AD), the latter our most important source for spatial knowledge and reasoning in antiquity, highlight different facets of ancient cognitive maps for orientation and navigation. For this, the members of the group established a monthly reading group in 2012. In some 60 sessions at the Arbeitsbereich “Historische Geographie des antiken Mittelmeerraumes”, the group has read and discussed with invited international experts – among them Pascal Arnaud (Lyon), Tønnes Bekker-Nielsen (Odense), Omar Coloru (Paris), Anca Dan (Paris), Günther Görz (Erlangen/Berlin/Rom), Kurt Guckelsberger (Braunschweig), Irene Pajón Leyra (Madrid), Didier Marcotte (Reims], Francisco Javier González Ponce (Seville), Pierre Schneider (Arras), Stefan Schorn (Leuven), David Sider (New York) and Giusto Traina (Paris) – selected passages of Herodotus, Strabo and other ancient authors.

Lastly, the project has developed a consistent model of arranging and classifying Greek, Roman and other geographical texts from a historical perspective in the recently published paper “Common Sense Geography and Ancient Geographical Texts”, in: Space and Knowledge. Topoi Research Group Articles, eTopoi. Journal for Ancient Studies, Special Volume 6 (2016) 571–597.

The mental modelling of common sense geography as developed by the members of the research project has been shown to be a fruitful theoretical approach that allows us to gain deeper insights in universal and cultural-specific mnemonic representational systems on the one hand, and to enhance our understanding of historical geography on the other.