Scientific analysis helps team explore mysteries of medieval Gough Map

16 February 2015

Gough Map analysisThere was a palpable sense of excitement as a dozen researchers and tech experts gathered underground at the Bodleian's Weston Library to analyse the medieval Gough Map using three ground-breaking technologies.

The team, including chemists, conservators, historians and paleographers, came together at the end of January for a week of scientific analysis on this iconic map, which is the earliest surviving sheet map of Great Britain.

'We're pooling our talents with the hope of cracking the key questions about the Gough Map,' said Nick Millea, Bodleian Map Librarian and author of The Gough Map: The Earliest Road Map of Great Britain? 'We're still looking for the smoking gun: why this map was made and who it was made for. Anything we find will help us answer these questions.'

Drawn on two pieces of sheepskin, the Gough Map depicts Britain as if on its side surrounded by a murky green sea. It's believed to have been produced sometime between 1300 and 1430. Narrowing down the date of its creation is among the researchers' goals as is finding out more about the mysterious red lines, with distances noted, which connect settlements but aren't believed to be roads.

Gough MapExperts from Factum Arte, a technology and arts firm based in Madrid, flew in to provide 3D laser scanning of the Gough Map. The result is a 3D 'map of the map,' revealing every crinkle, bump, scraping and pinhole on the surface of the map and allowing researchers to explore text that has been painted over or scraped out over the years.

'We have created a virtual copy of the map that will be the subject of study and interpretation for years to come,' said David Howell, the Bodleian's Head of Conservation Research who organized the week of research.

Studying the pigments used to paint the map's coastline, rivers, place names and settlements could provide clues about where and when the Gough Map was created. Professor of Chemistry Andrew Beeby from the University of Durham performed a type of pigment analysis called Raman spectroscopy with expert input from Professor Tony Parker from the Central Laser Facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory and Dr Kate Nicholson, Lecturer in Physical Chemistry from the University of Northumbria. Professor Beeby's  specially designed instruments use lasers that are harmless enough to be used on precious artefacts (weaker than a laser pointer) but powerful enough to determine the chemical nature of the pigments on the map, finding, for example, for example, extensive use of indigo for the green sea.

'It's the little details that are interesting,' said Catherine Delano-Smith, Principal Investigator of the research team and a senior research fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. 'In a sense this isn't one map, it seems to have been a working document updated over time. Our job is to see how the technology can help us tease out those layers and maybe come up with a chronology of how the map was created.'

Scanning of the Gough MapIn a different type of pigment analysis, the team used the Bodleian Libraries' newly acquired hyperspectral imaging tool. This uses an advanced type of camera to provide extremely accurate colour information that isn't visible to the naked eye. 'Our eyes have three sensors for detecting colour information, this instrument has 334' said Howell, who recently acquired the instrument with a grant from the University of Oxford Fell Fund. 'It's so exciting to be using cutting edge technology to reveal information in new ways.'

The real test will come over the coming months when the multidisciplinary team of researchers will be crunching the data from the three tests. They plan to share their results through a symposium at the Bodleian this autumn and will be preparing a paper for publication.

'The results look awesome and the technical teams worked fantastically hard,' said Howell. 'This is a model for future research collaborations.'

Most of the academics and experts volunteered their time and expertise for free; the Factum Arte project was partly funded by a five-figure grant from a Queen Mary University of London research collaboration fund, raised by Professor Jerry Brotton.

Meanwhile, scientific analysis continues at the Bodleian. Howell and colleagues are using the Libraries' newly-acquired hyperspectral imaging tool in a research project that seeks to recreate the lost colour chart of botanical illustrator Ferdinand Bauer.

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