After years of painstaking restoration, a map from 1663 of early Dutch explorations of the Southern Hemisphere is back in the spotlight. Called the Archipelagus Orientalis, sive Asiaticus (Eastern and Asian archipelago), the extremely rare map had been mothballed and forgotten for over 50 years in a storage unit in Sweden. It was only when the owners decided to auction the piece that they discovered it to be one of only four in existence.

"It was in very poor condition because it was designed as a wall map," Libby Melzer, senior paper conservator from the University of Melbourne, explained in a statement. "Exposure to air, people touching it and the varnish used on top all caused considerable degradation."

The Blaeu map of 1663 before an intensive restoration process by the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Material Conservation. The Blaeu map of 1663 before an intensive restoration process by the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Material Conservation. (Photo: National Library of Australia)

Composed of 40 separate pieces of paper that were joined together and then placed on a fabric backing, the large map was created by famous Dutch cartographer Joan Blaeu. It's historically significant for both its detailed drawings of the west and north coasts of New Holland (re-named Australia in the mid-19th century) and the first ever recordings of Tasmania and New Zealand. These discoveries, made by Dutch explorer Abel Tasman during expeditions in 1642-1643 and 1644, served as the template for all maps of the Southern Hemisphere for over a century.

Restoring one of the world's rarest maps

After the National Library of Australia acquired the artifact in 2013 for nearly $500,000, Melzer and the rest of the team at the Grimwade Centre for Cultural Material Conservation took on the task of repairing and restoring the 354-year-old piece. As you can see in the video below, a variety of techniques were used over the course of more than 1,000 hours of restoration work.

In the process of removing layers of dirt and varnish, the 11-person restoration team was also surprised to uncover details not previously recorded. These included ships bearing either Dutch or Spanish flags and the curious addition of a whale with two spouts.

"Perhaps they didn’t quite know what whales were when they first sighted them," Melzer speculated.

The map will now permanently reside at the National Library of Australia in Canberra.

The 17th century Blaeu map after restoration. The 17th century Blaeu map after restoration. (Photo: National Library of Australia)

Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.