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Recovering the lost details of a medieval map

Researchers at Yale University have started a project to recover details from a 15th-century world map which had been obscured after centuries of fading.

Martellus Map - photo courtesy Yale / Beinecke

The map of the world by German cartographer Henricus Martellus decorates a wall outside the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. Drawn in about 1491, the this map was likely the one Christopher Columbus used to help plan his first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

However, much of its text and details cannot be seen because of fading and damage to map. To help rediscover these details, a team of researchers will be taking multispectral images of the map at specific frequencies of light, including ultraviolet and infrared. The images will be digitally combined and processed in a way that uncovers information that conventional means of examining manuscripts cannot capture.

“The Martellus map is an incredibly strong candidate for this kind of technology,” said Chet Van Duzer, a map historian and the team leader for the project. “You just know it’s going to pop.”

Using 12 different types of illumination, including high-resolution natural light, gray-scale, and false-color, the team will capture 55 overlapping images of the map. Those images will be processed into images and combined to create a single image of the Martellus map showing text, river systems, and other features not visible on the actual map.

“One of the most exciting images I’ve ever seen of a map is an ultraviolet image of the Martellus map taken in the early ’60s,” Van Duzer added. “If you look at eastern Asia with natural light, if you look closely, you get a hint that there’s text there, but if you look in ultraviolet light suddenly you see that there’s text everywhere.”

The project is scheduled to be completed sometime next year, and the images will be made available online at the Beinecke Digital Library at Yale.

This short video notes how important the Martellus map would have been for Christopher Columbus:

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