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.)