In an old house in Scotland, something is blocking the chimney. So, reaching inside the flue, a man pulls out what looks like a crumpled ball of rags. He almost throws them away as well, but something stops him at the last minute. Could this apparent piece of trash be someone else’s treasure?
Here’s how the story unraveled. The man was renovating a house in Aberdeen, a city in the north east of Scotland, when he made the startling discovery. Yes, while working on the old chimney, he encountered what appeared to be a ball of old fabric.
Judging by the shape of the object, it seemed as if a previous owner had stuffed it up the chimney – possibly to stop a cold wind from blowing through into the house below. Now, however, it was difficult to tell what the item’s original purpose may have been.
Unable to identify it, the man who discovered the object considered tossing it into the trash. Happily, though, he had a change of heart and instead decided that his local museum might be interested.
Eventually, the object found its way to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. Rolled up in a polythene bag, it certainly didn’t look like much when it arrived. However, researchers soon realized that they had uncovered an incredible find.
In fact, conservationists at the library quickly determined that this unassuming bundle of rags was actually a map – one dating as far back as the late 17th century. What’s more, they believed that it would once have been a great status symbol for its owner.
Back in the 17th century, maps were seen as enviable possessions and a sign of great wealth. And the object here was no different. Measuring 7 feet long by 5 feet wide, the “Chimney Map,” as it became known, would once have been given pride of place in its owner’s home.
Apparently, it was produced in London, England, by a mapmaker named George Wildey. However, Wildey was known for copying maps initially drafted by others, and the origins of the Chimney Map are actually thought to have lain in Amsterdam in the Netherlands.
Experts in fact believe that the map was based on one drawn up by Schenk and Valk, who were popular Dutch mapmakers in the 17th century. Formed from eight separate sheets of paper and designed to be hung on a wall, it would have required a great deal of space to be properly displayed.
In order to make the map his own, moreover, Wildey added illustrations of famous people and places around the edges. And, incredibly, experts at the library were able to painstakingly restore these details and provide a fascinating insight into life more than 300 years ago.
Because of the presence of William III of England and his wife, Mary, in a prominent position on the map, researchers were able to date it to around 1690. In fact, they initially speculated that the king’s Protestant religious beliefs might have caused the map to be hidden away.
It’s more likely, however, that the map’s value simply faded over time. Although it was once a symbol of wealth and power, its significance would have decreased as the world around it changed.
Nonetheless, how the map ended up in Aberdeen remains a mystery – although staff at the National Library of Scotland must be glad that it did. And after a lengthy and difficult restoration process, they were able to restore the map to its former glory.
According to conservator Claire Thomson, the restoration was the hardest job she had ever faced. “Much of the paper had been lost,” she told Discover, the National Library of Scotland’s magazine, in 2016. “And the remainder was hard and brittle in places and soft and thin in others.”
Regrettably, the canvas base that had been attached to the map had deteriorated badly. Because the fabric and the paper reacted differently to their environment over time, the map had ended up cracked and distorted.
Still, eventually Thomson and her team managed to unroll the map and split it into smaller sections in order for the conservation work to begin. First, they attached the pieces to a temporary backing and used a humidifier to gradually reintroduce moisture to the fibers of the paper.
As the paper became less dry, Thomson was then able to gently prize open the map’s remaining creases and folds. Next, the team carefully lined up all the pieces in their correct order. So, at last, the full picture was beginning to come together.
The final stage of the process involved suspending each section of the map in water at a temperature of 104 °F for 40 minutes. Amazingly, too, this didn’t destroy the fragile documents. Instead, it allowed dirt to be removed from the paper while keeping the intricate designs intact.
The restoration was a resounding success. What had previously looked fit for the bin was revealed to be a beautiful and detailed work of art – featuring everything from scenes of exploration and great sea battles, to far-off regions such as South America.
Today, the map takes pride of place once more – just as it would have done three centuries earlier. This time, though, it is on display in the Maps Reading Room of the National Library of Scotland, making it the pride of one of the largest cartographic collections in the world.
As this discovery proves, sometimes it’s the most unremarkable-looking objects that have the most fascinating stories to tell. Take, for instance, this other seemingly mundane find, which also took place in Scotland. The object in question looked like nothing more than a crumpled paper parcel when museum staff discovered it. However, it turned out to be something far more rare and valuable.
Dr. Margaret Maitland was sorting through some of the extensive collection of objects in storage at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh’s Old Town when she came across an unremarkable-looking parcel wrapped in brown paper. And although it didn’t seem very promising and was unlabeled, she decided to unwrap it anyway.
When the curator did, she discovered a bundle of old fabric. Also inside the parcel was an envelope dating from World War II, and inside the envelope was a note written in the 1940s by a previous curator. Moreover, it was when Dr. Maitland read the note that her interest was really piqued.
The note stated that the contents of the unprepossessing parcel dated from ancient Egyptian times, while what was in the package had in fact come from a burial tomb. Now Dr. Maitland realized that she may be on to something really interesting – something that had languished in storage since the 1940s.
Conservators at the museum assessed the fabric and realized that its age and fragility meant it would need careful treatment to ensure it wasn’t damaged while being unfolded. The first stage of this process involved humidifying the material, which would subsequently make the cloth less brittle and easier to handle.
Next came the painstaking task of unfolding the fabric, and this operation alone took some 24 hours to complete. It was also during the unfolding process that the museum staff became really excited. Dr. Maitland later told the National Museums Scotland website that they could see “tantalizing glimpses of colorful painted details.”
Once the fabric was completely unfolded, the conservators realized that they’d stumbled across an object of great rarity and historical value. “None of us could have imagined the remarkable figure that would greet us when we were finally able to unroll it,” Dr. Maitland admitted.
Describing the extraordinary discovery, Dr. Maitland said, “The shroud is a very rare object in superb condition and is executed in a highly unusual artistic style, suggestive of Roman-period Egyptian art, yet still very distinctive.”
Indeed, remarkably intact, the shroud is one of very few such artifacts from the Roman period, which started around 30 B.C. Consisting of linen that has been painted, the shroud depicts the Egyptian deity Osiris. Appropriately enough, Osiris was the god of the underworld and the afterlife.
Now that Dr. Maitland and her colleagues knew what they had, they could start examining the shroud in more detail. In fact, by deciphering hieroglyphics on the shroud, they were able to identify the person who’d been wrapped in it. The man, named Aaemka, was the son of two important officials from the Roman era in Egypt: Montsuef and his wife Tanuat.
Meanwhile, principal conservator Lynn McClean recalled that in the course of examining the shroud, the team had come across brown paper stuck to the back of it. This was, furthermore, moistened so that it could be carefully removed. “What we found under the head were layers of the original mummy wrapping that had obviously come away when the shroud was taken off the body,” McClean said.
What’s more, in a stroke of serendipity, the museum’s collection already contained artifacts from the tomb of the couple, Montsuef and Tanuat, including a gold mask of the former. “It is extraordinarily rare that we have such an incredible group of objects belonging to a whole ancient Egyptian family in our collections,” Dr. Maitland pointed out.
The museum’s researchers were now able to date the shroud because of their detailed knowledge about Aaemka’s parents. It is known that Montsuef and Tanuat had died in 9 B.C., so this shroud must have been created sometime early in the 1st century A.D.
Meanwhile, as well as Montsuef’s golden mask, the museum possesses a golden wreath that would have been worn upon his head and which was buried with him 2,000 years ago. Dr. Maitland explained that this wreath represented a symbolic defeat of death.
As for what fate had in store back in Egypt, the tomb of Montsuef, Tanuat and their son Aaemka remained sealed and undisturbed until 1857, when it was excavated. Other magnificent artifacts that came from this crypt include funerary papyrus documents. And these provide detailed accounts of the mummification process and funeral rituals as well as histories of the lives of Montsuef and Tanuat. The latter apparently passed away just 48 days after the death of her husband.
Now although the burial of Montsuef, Tanuat and Aaemka has been authoritatively dated to the early part of the 1st century A.D., their tomb was in fact much older than that. Located near the ancient city of Thebes, which we know today as Luxor, the crypt was actually constructed more than one thousand years earlier.
Yes, the tomb was built not long after the reign of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen. It was a time when the Egyptian empire was at its peak of power and wealth. And high officials seemingly competed with one another for the honor of having the most lavish and richly decorated crypts.
The other motivation for creating these opulent tombs stuffed with precious jewelry and elaborate furniture was the belief that worldly wealth could be transported to the afterlife. At the time, bodies were mummified, with their innards extracted and preserved separately in special jars.
Interestingly, when it was first constructed, this tomb was actually the final resting place of the chief of police and his wife. He was an important official of the day. In fact, one of the artifacts found there is a magnificent statue of the couple. This statue would have served as a “home” for the spirits of the dead. Moreover, the chief of police, or Medjay, had the job of protecting the tombs near ancient Thebes.
Describing the rituals that took place at the tomb, Dr. Maitland said, “[People] would go and present offerings to a statue of their deceased relatives, so that they would have the food and drink they needed to be able to live forever.”
In the centuries between 1290 B.C., when the tomb was built, and the 1st century A.D., when it was sealed after the deaths of Montsuef and his family, the tomb would have been reused many times. However, it subsequently remained untouched for almost two millennia, until Victorian archeologists excavated it. The beautifully preserved shroud later sat on a museum shelf for 80 years. And history lovers the world over will be glad that it’s finally been rediscovered.