Physical maps may be disposable or obsolete today, but during the 17th century they were invaluable and prized documents. Naturally, it came as a bit of a shock when experts at the National Library of Scotland received a gift of a rare map by a well-known engraver that had been shoved up a chimney and forgotten for centuries. Now, thanks to some hard work by expert conservationists, the map has been thoroughly cleaned and restored.
In the late 1600s, fine maps were prized possessions that were often owned by the very, very rich—and the Dutch engraver Gerald Valck was one of the best at the time. Before it was rolled up and stuffed up a chimney in Aberdeen, the approximately 7-foot-long, 5-foot-tall map was one of just three copies Valck made of a intricately detailed map of the world, the BBC reports.
Unfortunately, chimneys don’t make the best storage spaces, preservation-wise.
“This is one of the most challenging tasks our conservation team has faced and they have done a terrific job,” National Librarian John Scally says in a statement. "Although significant sections of the map have been lost, the remainder has been cleaned and stabilized for future study and enjoyment.”
The fact that the map still exists in as good of a condition as it is now is a minor miracle. After spending centuries jammed up a chimney (possibly to seal up a draft), the man who found it while renovating the house nearly threw it away. It was rolled up in a plastic bag and looked simply like a gnarled, musty old pile of rags when it first arrived at the library, Tony Clerkson reports for the Scottish Daily Record.
“Once the map was unfurled I was able to assess its condition, which I must admit filled me with dread,” Claire Thomson, a book and paper conservator at the National Library, says in a statement. “Much of the paper had been lost, and the remainder was hard and brittle in places and soft and thin in others. We needed to stabilize it to prevent any further deterioration, make it robust and easier to handle to get to a point where it could be studied by researchers.”
While Thomson and her colleagues were unable to save the entire map, they managed to successfully restore sections of it to close to its original appearance, while preserving it for future study and display, Sarah Laskow writes for Atlas Obscura. Now, after countless hours of humidifying, flattening, dry cleaning, brushing and soaking, the delicate details of the map’s designs are once again there for all to see.