Conversation with an Antique Map Dealer (and Acquisition of My First Antique Map)

On something of a whim, my wife and I met up with an Australian map dealer while he was in Shanghai last Saturday and bought our first antique map. It was made in 1715 by Nicolaes Witsen, a cartographer, Dutch statesman, and mayor of Amsterdam 13 times. It shows Asia and the Near East, including Arabia (images below). Like other maps he had that showed Arabia, this was not one of the rare maps that show a Nahom-related name (Nehem, Nehhm, or Nikkum), but it does provide good detail and many other place names. I feel it is beautiful and tells a variety of stories.

I spent over an hour talking with Vince U., an experienced map collector, who told me a lot about old maps. The color on these old maps was typically provided by hand with watercolor after the printing was done using an engraved copper plate. You can see the indentation in the paper where the plate was pressed. You can also see the wiremarks from old papermaking technology as something of a watermark in the paper. The maps were typically prepared in large and very expensive atlases that were usually owned by the elite and wealthy in Europe (dukes, barons, etc.). Europe is where they were produced and that was where the real market for them was. My map, like many other old maps from that era, is in very good shape because it probably sat in a protected atlas on a shelf until somebody decided to get some money from the antiquity, at which point the binding of the atlas was removed and the individual maps were extracted and sold.

The map I purchased offers a variety of lessons from history. One is how little geographical data or other information related to practical travel can be gleaned from Arabia on this and many other old maps. Where is the Empty Quarter? Where is actual water versus the numerous dry wadis on the map? Where are impassable regions and where can one actually travel and survive? One further question which maps can’t answer is also relevant to Nahom in the Book of Mormon: Which place names are relatively modern and which were around in, say, 600 BC?

Another lesson is how scientific error can be preserved and propagated through the weight of poor authority. My map features a large lake northeast of India that serves as the source of several major rivers. This lake does not exist. Another mapmaker long ago, working with an absence of information about that region, figured there had to be some major source for the large rivers of India which begin in the Himalayas and elsewhere. One mapmaker made a guess and stuck a huge mythical lake on the map, and it persisted for many years on other maps, relying on the authority of those who had gone before. As I recall, that mythical lake persisted for over a century, maybe closer to two centuries, on high-end, carefully researched maps.

Again, these beautiful old maps were usually owned by very wealthy people, mostly in Europe, but some made it to the states, and some libraries obtained atlases or individual maps or books with foldout maps. They are not the kind of thing that local frontiersman would view and handle while relaxing at a tavern. They are not the kind of thing that farm boys with little education would go examine after a day of plowing, though one could certainly imagine a kindly local timber baron coming through town and stopping young Joseph Smith with a greeting like, “Hey, my young farmer friend, put down that shovel and come look at this rare map from Europe. Cool, eh? Hey, clean your hands before you touch it.” This scenario solves the problem of Joseph the young bookworm having to go about 200 miles away, as far as we know, to get to the nearest library having a Nahom-related map in its archives.

The kindly timber-baron scenario also solves the problem of Joseph obviously not being a bookworm, with no evidence that he ever availed himself of libraries or bookstores before the Book of Mormon came out. A wealthy map owner shoving his rare map in front of Joseph’s face is a more plausible scenario than Joseph seeking one out in a distant library. But to be more plausible, we need our timber baron to help Joseph notice something that almost nobody would notice otherwise: “Joe, quit looking at all those big cities and remember this little gem near Sanaa: Nehem. Can you spell it? Nehem. Nobody’s ever heard of it, but it’s there, and it sure would add some nice local color if you ever want to write a tale about Arabia. It won’t be helpful now, but maybe in the future when everybody knows all about Arabia. And make sure you finish with a happy ending. Nobody likes novels where all the good guys get wiped out in the end. Cheers!” Yes, this could have happened, theoretically.

(Click the images to enlarge.)

Author: Jeff Lindsay

17 thoughts on “Conversation with an Antique Map Dealer (and Acquisition of My First Antique Map)

  1. Jeff, why are you setting up such a comical straw-man? Information circulates through a culture in complicated and manifold ways. There are any number of ways the information on an old map could have found its way into Joseph's mind. What you're doing is positing one particularly unlikely way as representative of the entire set of possibilities. The lie conveyed by this rhetorical gambit is that because your representation is so unlikely, the sum of all the other pathways from map to mind are equally unlikely.

    It's impossible to take suc transparent rhetoric as this seriously, Jeff. It's no wonder the Church is distancing itself from FAIR-style apologetics and "Ancient Book of Mormon Studies."

    — OK

  2. Jeff, I should add that I agree with you wholeheartedly about the beauty and fascination of old maps. Way back in the day I worked in the rare books department of a university library. One of my jobs was to go out into the stacks in the regular, publicly accessible parts of the library and look for books that, over the course of the previous decades, had become antiques and needed to be moved into the more secure precincts of the rare books department. Otherwise they were vulnerable to unscrupulous dealers—particularly old books on travel and exploration that contained now-valuable maps and etchings just waiting to be cut out with a razor blade.

    — OK

  3. "What you're doing is positing one particularly unlikely way as representative of the entire set of possibilities."

    But aren't you doing the same thing by suggesting that Joseph must have had access to a map? Isn't there a set of possibilities (above the subset for how he got the map) having to do with how he came to place Nahom in the narrative to begin with?


  4. Correct, Jack. The map scenario is only one of several ways Joseph could have placed Nahom in the story as he did.

    But I don't consider it unlikely, and I'm not offering it up as a caricature of someone else's position, as Jeff does with his scenario of the "kindly timber-baron scenario … shoving his rare map in front of Joseph's face" or of "Joseph seeking one [a map] out in a distant library."

    — OK

  5. Thank you for at least recognizing that my scenario was comical. Definitely not intended to be serious. A more serious attempt at explaining Lehi's Trail as a 19th-century fabrication would need to explain the find of a good candidate for the River Laman and Valley of Lemuel, the presence of fertile regions thereafter consistent with 1 Nephi, the topographically correct use of "up" and "down" with respect to travel around Jerusalem, the precise south-southeast direction for Lehi's very plausible route after the River Laman, the Hebraically astute link between Nahom and mourning, murmuring, and hunger, the possibility of due east travel thereafter being the ideal way to reach the miraculous place Bountiful, having Arabia's largest freshwater lagoon and many other features consistent with Bountiful, yet strangely plausibly uninhabited in Nephi!s day due to very difficult access unless one comes the unintuitive way Lehi came. A more plausible scenario requires a Hebrew student and ideally someone who has traveled the route described. But that is less entertaining for my light-minded blog.

  6. This comment is directed primarily at OK, but I suppose it could apply to a few others who agree with him.

    After reading the comments on this post and the previous few posts, I don't think OK can be considered to be an accurate judge of anything related the Church or Mormonism in general. In every argument the conclusion that OK draws, no matter the weight of the evidence, is that the Book of Mormon is a modern production, that the Church is abandoning the historicity of the Book of Mormon, and that the Church will eventually wither away into obscurity while rejecting the Book of Mormon as scripture. These three conclusions are taken as the gospel truth and all evidence must be evaluated in such a way to produce these conclusions.

    There is no hint of "What does the evidence show?", but rather, "How does the evidence fit my conclusions?"

    For example, the Church is making strides towards ensuring that how we talk about the Book of Mormon is in line with what we are learning about the native people in the Americas. Rather than maintain, against all evidence, that all peoples in the Americas are descended from Book of Mormon peoples, the Church is taking a more nuanced approach that can fit within the evidence, and is actually more inline with that the actual text implies. But for OK the action is interpreted as an abandonment of historicity and is merely a step along the path where eventually the Church will jettison the Book of Mormon entirely. For OK, there are no other possible ways of interpreting what the Church is doing, because he takes the conclusion as a given and then connects whatever dots he can to reach it, even if it has no relation to what is actually happening.

    OK's complete and demonstrated inability to accurately contextualize and gauge the current actions of the Church seriously call into question his ability to assess the historical context of the publication of the Book of Mormon. About the only thing OK has managed to prove is his unwavering conviction to his expressly stated conclusions and is defended against all reason.

    Then, as if in an effort to goad us into some kind of irrational response, OK confidently declares himself to be firmly in the "reality-based community", yet exhibits no dedication to the complexity of reality, or for an honest assessment of historical context. And then OK expresses "pity" that we just can't see the brilliance that dominates his thought. For OK it is so clear what the Church will eventually do, and the end result is a forgone conclusion that the rest of us will eventually be forced to recognize.

    There are other commenters, James Anglin comes to mind, where we may disagree on the conclusion, and even honestly disagree on the evidence, but at least we have a minimum commitment to rational debate. Something OK has consistently failed to demonstrate.

    Which leads me to two conclusions.

    First, a point by point response to OK will yield no rational discussion.

    Second, and this comes from the observation that everyone considers themselves to be rational, because of OK's seeming irrational adherence to his theories, there must be another rational reason for his desire to see the Book of Mormon, and the Church in general, marginalized. If I or anyone else is to have a rational discussion with OK, then we must first address the root issues that prompt OK to respond in a seemingly irrational way. I can guess what those issues might be, and I can see why OK would feel the need to minimalize the Book of Mormon and the Church because to take both seriously would have serious implications for what OK considers to be rational conclusions.

    Until these other issues are discussed and resolved, for OK, mockery, derision, contempt, and an almost fundamentalist adherence to his basic premises are very much a rational response to anything Jeff, I or anyone else might say here. Which directly leads to my first conclusion.

  7. Jeff,
    You have to give this up. It should be obvious to yo by now that Joseph Smith was the most widely read man in the United States. Whatever he needed to write the Book of Mormon was in a library or collection somewhere that he possibly could have had, and obviously did, have access to.
    Well, except for the Early Modern English occurrences, but they were just a frozen artifact of the language somewhere around there for which any evidence has yet to be found, But that must be the answer.
    The reality of the self described reality based critic is that they will take one factoid in isolation, find a possible source of inspiration and claim victory for themselves, then on to the next factoid. Actual odds do not matter. A chance, no matter how remote, satisfies them. No need to bother to find an actual probable congruence. A possibility, no matter how remote will suffice.
    The spirit of Dale Morgan lives on. (I will look look everywhere for explanations except to the one explanation that is the position of the Church.)


  8. Glenn,

    there are many things that have influenced you in your life and in your thoughts for which, hundreds of years from now, there will be no obvious way to account. We don't need to find out HOW Joseph Smith accessed the ideas and sources that may account for the Book of Mormon. I think we only need to show that in his day, these ideas were in circulation.

    Calling truth "plain and precious" was in circulation. Did Joseph Smith read the Christian writings that use this expression? Maybe not.

    Speech about a "new and everlasting covenant" was in circulation. Belief that that unification of male and female creates gods was already in circulation. Belief in a signs and tokens was already in circulation. The practice of "spiritual wifery" or "celestial marriage" was already in circulation.

    Mormonism is not unique. I was taught that it was my entire childhood and adolescence. I was taught that it contains truth no other Christian body possesses. Then, I find out that while this may be true, it does contain ideas that are in fine circulation throughout Kabbalah, Freemasonry, Hermeticism, Luciferianism, and other occultic traditions.

    What isn't unique about Mormonism is found in Christianity. What seems unique about Mormonism is occult. You may see this as the sewing back together of the truth torn apart during the Great Apostasy. In reality, this situation is in itself occutic. The occult will often cloak itself in the garb of the popular religion of the time and place. Once one is initiated into the religion, then the deeper teachings will be revealed to the worthy.

    This is the way the occult works. The Christianity within Mormonism is only a disguise. What lies under the disguise is much darker. It is all about power. "Power in the Priesthood….."

    Christianity is about humility. God became Man.

    Mormonism is about power. Man becomes God.

    The rooster is crowing. Time to wake up.

  9. QuantumLeap42 said

    "There is no hint of 'What does the evidence show?', but rather, 'How does the evidence fit my conclusions?'"


    "exhibits no dedication to the complexity of reality, or for an honest assessment of historical context."

    How do angels and miraculous translations fit into "evidence," "complexity of reality," and "historical context"? Does your version of reality include allowances for "alternative facts"?

  10. "Christianity is about humility. God became Man."

    "Mormonism is about power. Man becomes God."

    I like to think of it more like: Christianity is about following Jesus.

    When we follow Him he leads us to become like Him. And in so doing, both humility and power are implied in the process.


  11. EBU,
    So, now you are falling back onto the "occult" thing. That is okay, although not on target. You also have your own biases and really do not require any evidence for your position nor do you deal with the evidence that is produced except to dismiss it pretty much as I noted. It is enough to satisfy you if somewhere, somehow, some of the information existed. Since you feel you only need to convince yourself.

    That is okay. You do not have to deal with the probabilities as long as you are self satisfied.

    Actually there are things about the LDS religion that are unique. But yes, there are bits and pieces floating around that most likely came from the torn fabric of the apostasy.


  12. @Glenn Thigpen,

    By no means would Smith have had to have access to books, in the sense of being able to go and hold them in his own hands. He would merely have to have heard, or even overheard, something of their contents.

    Any idea which was to be found on a printed page anywhere in New England, any year before the Book of Mormon was produced, is an idea of which Smith could have heard from someone who had read it—or from someone who had heard it from someone who had read it, and so on. He could have heard it in a sermon, or in a tavern from someone who had heard it in a sermon, or … or … or.

    None of these oral channels of influence will have left any evidence that we can find today. That doesn't mean that they are unlikely explanations for Smith's apparent knowledge. We all hear things from other people all the time. The hypothetical possibility that Smith could have heard something is obviously there.

    So Smith does not have to have owned a vast frontier library. He doesn't have to have been well read. He only has to have kept his ears open.

    Maybe he didn't actually overhear anything like the idea, say, that native Americans were descended from Jews, or that there was a place in Arabia called something like Nahom. I grant that these items probably weren't daily topics of conversation in Smith's local hang-out. But is the possibility of his ever overhearing such an idea really so remote that an angel with golden plates is more likely?

  13. The same could be said about the story of Jesus. The whole thing could be based on nothing but hearsay. Just a yarn spun from stuff people said.


  14. Um, sure. And nobody says that it couldn't have been. The New Testament records some miraculous events, but there isn't supposed to be anything miraculous about how the record itself was made and spread. Oral accounts from witnesses were repeated, at some point they got written down, and then there was some editing. Nobody received any plates from an angel and translated them by seeing words on a rock in a hat.

    With the Book of Mormon it's supposed to be a big deal that something miraculous must have occurred to produce the text itself, because there's no way that Joseph Smith or any of his confederates could have come up with its content by themselves. Much of the content of the Book of Mormon had been published before, at least in some form, but it's supposed to be a big deal that Joseph Smith couldn't have known about that stuff before the Book of Mormon appeared, because he was poorly educated and owned few or no books. Whenever a critic finds a plausible source for the Book of Mormon that might have existed on paper somewhere in New England in Smith's time, Mormon apologists point out how hard it would have been for Smith to have gotten his hands on that source.

    The fact that Smith had no vast frontier library is a "nothing up my sleeve" argument. It focuses attention on a safe possibility and distracts attention from the dangerous issue which would otherwise be obvious. Of course Smith couldn't just Google up a PDF of everything that had been published before him, but land sakes, folks: he obviously didn't have to have a printed page before his eyes in order to get a good idea of the information on it.

    People talk. In a society in which travel was possible but most people still didn't travel much, people with news from out of town were heard gladly. In a literate society in which books were still scarce, people would surely have talked a lot about books. So anything printed anywhere in New England, or even further away, is something that Smith could easily have heard by word of mouth. Sources for the Book of Mormon cannot be dismissed just because it would have been hard for Smith to have gotten his hands on a copy.

  15. Anglin, it isn't the content of the Book of Mormon, it's the systematically non-biblical archaic form, structure, and meaning "that Joseph Smith or any of his confederates could [not] have come up with".

  16. I'm not sure what you mean by "form, structure, and meaning" as opposed to "content". To me, if you took all the form, structure, and meaning out of a book, there'd be precious little left in the way of content. Can you maybe explain what you mean?

  17. James, I think by "non-biblical archaic form, structure, and meaning" Anon 10:00 means "Early Modern English," and if so, he's got nothin'.

    — OK

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