Secrets of world’s oldest trade map unlocked by Nottingham experts

The Selden Map of China is the world's oldest surving trade map. PHOTO: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

The world’s oldest surviving trade map has revealed new secrets thanks to experts at Nottingham Trent University.

The ‘Selden Map of China’ dates back to the 17th Century, and depicts the ancient maritime trade routes in Asia.

While little is known about the map, researchers have been able to identify the materials and techniques used to create it for the first time, as well the mistakes made by the cartographer.

They also found the map may not have originated from China, as previously thought.

The map was donated by lawyer John Selden to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 1659, where it remained until 2008, when it was rediscovered.

It shows the shipping routes starting from Quanzhou in the Fujian province, and reaches Japan and India.

The research was carried out using PRISMS, an imaging system developed by the university, which lets scientists look at the map using different wavelengths of light, revealing details invisible to the naked eye.

The map was originally believed to be from China. PHOTO: Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Researchers found that some alterations to the map were mistakes where it’s believed the cartographer did not plan the full map, and drew the trade routes before the land and made changes as knowledge of areas developed.

It was also discovered the pigments used to paint the map, and the gum used to bind it, are more consistent with those used in Persian or Indo-Persian and Islamic manuscripts, rather than Chinese techniques as previously thought.

It’s now proposed that the map originated in Aceh, a province of Indonesia at the Northwest end of Summatra which has the longest history of Islamic presence in south east Asia.

It’s one of six ports marked by a red circle on the map.

Professor Haida Liang, part of the research group said: “This study illustrates the importance of not judging a book by its cover.

“A seemingly Chinese map has turned out to be the material evidence of a fusion of cultures.

“It is stylistically a Chinese painting that follows some Chinese and non-Chinese cartographic elements, but the painting materials and their usage are more akin to those of Persian or Indo-Persian manuscripts.”

English ships returning home would pass Aceh, which may have been why it ended up in the hands of someone from England.

“Because of its geographic location, Aceh was frequented by Indian, Arab, Chinese and European traders,” added Professor Liang.

“We believe the map could have been made there by a Fujianese, possibly a Muslim in close contact with the Islamic world.

“This was globalisation in the early 17th Century.

“By focusing on the material evidence found using scientific analysis and art history, we have arrived at a new conclusion on where the map was made, following previous studies based on historical research.

“This work shows the immense importance of interdisciplinary research and the new insights it can bring.”