Some people just love chimneys, and it’s easy to see why. Beautiful, ornate, and charming, the typically brick structures heat homes with dazzling flames while producing a smoky, woodsy smell.
Apparently, they’re good for hiding away some junk, too—or, at least, something that seems like junk. When an unnamed man from Aberdeen, North East Scotland, found some ash-stained rags jammed inside his chimney during a home renovation, he figured he would just toss them in the trash.
Upon closer inspection, though, he noticed he was holding more than just garbage…
There’s a reason you could watch a thousand shows on home renovation: it’s full of drama! From unseen mold to busted beams, you never know if there will be a hidden hiccup in the process. But, sometimes, home renovators uncover something that’s more than just a challenge—they find something amazing.
During one home renovation in Aberdeen, North East Scotland, an unnamed man found something truly extraordinary blocking the flue of an old chimney. Reaching up into the soot, he released what was causing the blockage—and he was immediately glad he did.
At first, the blockage looked like a collection of charred and sooty rags. Putrid green and tattered, it had, evidently, been used to block a draft that had been coming in through the chimney. The man’s first instinct was to take it to the trash, but then he saw something that gave him pause…
It wasn’t a jumble of rags at all. Writing covered one side of what the man had initially believed to be junk, as if it was a piece of parchment. He unrolled it to get a better look, but that only produced a problem…
As the man unrolled the material, pieces of it crumbled to the floor like ash. He was inadvertently destroying it! He didn’t know what it was, but he had the distinct feeling that he should find out. He enlisted some help from a surprising source.
The man brought the material to the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. He might not have known what he was dealing with, but at least it would go into hands of the experts who could figure it out… and boy, were the experts ever happy when they saw it!
When the item arrived at the library, it was rolled up and shoved into a plastic bag and then tucked away into an old packing box. The restoration and conservation experts carefully pulled out the parchment to reveal the ragged material the man had discovered. Soon, they would know exactly what they were looking at…
As the experts laid the material on the table, they realized it was so much more than rags. First, they were able to determine that the material was canvas, and at seven feet long and five feet wide, it was actually a significant piece of history!
It was a map. Or at least it had been a map. Claire Thomson, the book and paper conservator of the library, said, “Once the map was unfurled I was able to assess its condition, which I must admit filled me with dread. Much of the paper had been lost.”
And of the canvas that remained? It was “…hard and brittle in places and soft and thin in others,” Thomson continued. They knew they’d gotten their hands on something historically significant, however, so they pressed on.
“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,” Thomson added.
The question remained: how did a map like this even end up jammed in a chimney flue in the first place? Centuries ago, this artifact would have been proudly displayed on the wall of an upper-class home. What was more: certain clues pointed to the original artist.
The map contained dozens of indicators of artist and age. For instance, the faces of King William III of England and Queen Mary were drawn on the map, which helped conservationists date it to about 1690 AD. Even more clues peppered the canvas, too.
The map showed sea battles of the time, and it indicated the Dutch colonizing of both China and Portugal—more events that pointed toward the late 17th century. Here, too, you could see how the map was made: the paper was attached to the canvas.Trina Mckendrick / YouTube
There were even further indicators of age beyond those. The map showed the Dutch in a fine, heroic light, while highlighting the Spanish as villainous conquerors. In other words, this wasn’t a map made by Spaniards. So, who had made it?
Researchers eventually uncovered the truth: the map had been drawn by George Wildey of London, England. That didn’t quite answer the question of its genesis, though, because Wildey didn’t make original maps. He simply copied maps others drew! What was the true origin, then?
As researchers dug deeper, they discovered that the map had been based on a drawing by the Dutch mapmaker Gerald Valck. That explained the Dutch bias in the drawings, and having it pass under Wildey’s pen likely explained the addition of King William III, too.
The one thing that didn’t explain is how it ended up in a chimney in Scotland…
That choice to hide the map, though, made all the more work for the preservationists. Getting it into decent shape would be a multi-tiered process. “This is one of the most challenging tasks our conservation team has faced,” said Dr. John Scally of the National Library.
Thomson (pictured) agreed, and when you hear the pains her team took to restore it, it’s easy to see why. According to the library’s website, conservationists had to flatten the map, separate it into its original eight sections, remove the linen backing, dry clean and wash the paper, and then reassemble it.
As Dr. Scally put it, “It would have been very easy for this map to end up at the bottom of a skip, but thankfully, it can now take its place among the magnificent maps held within our collection.” Just look at the map in all its restored beauty!
Don’t forget to check your chimney before lighting your next winter fire. You never know what might be hiding in the flue! you can find more information on the restoration process of this map by visiting the library’s website.
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