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The origin of the Selden Map of China through a holistic analysis of the painting materials and the cartographic techniques

The Selden map of China is an early seventeenth century map showing the maritime trade routes in East Asia. It looks like a combination of a coloured Chinese landscape painting style map and a nautical chart, with detailed annotations in Chinese of cities, ports and countries in Asia. The arrival of the map at the Bodleian Library (Oxford) is dated in 1659 and it was named after John Selden, a prominent London lawyer who donated the map to the library after his death in 1654. After the arrival of the map at the Bodleian Library, it was studied and annotated in Latin in 1687 by the librarian Thomas Hyde with the help of a Chinese Jesuit convert Michael Shen Fuzong who had arrived at the court of James II from China.

The map was frequently displayed as an item of curiosity in the eighteenth century but it probably fell into neglect after it was examined and dismissed as cartographically incorrect by the astronomer and mathematician Edmond Halley. However, the Selden map was ‘rediscovered’ by the historian Robert Batchelor with the help of the Bodleian librarian David Helliwell in 2008. After that, a lot of studies have been performed regarding the history and the interpretation of the map as it is believed to provide new and important information about the global maritime history of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The dating of the map has been narrowed down only after its ‘rediscovery’ based on extensive research by various historians and is set between 1607 and 1624.

Imaging and Sensing for Archaeology, Art History and Conservation (ISAAC) multispectral imaging study on the Selden Map

The Selden map (before the 2011 conservation treatment). The map dimensions ~ 96 cm by 158 cm.

© The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS Selden Supra 105

The first documented conservation of the map is back in 1919, when it was remounted on a thick paper border with cloth lining. This conservation procedure caused severe cracking of the paper support such that fragments would fall out with each unrolling of the map. The final restoration of the map, when it was also stabilized, was completed in 2011 and it is now on display at the Bodleian Library.

The aim of this project was the scientific examination of the painting materials and techniques of the map by employing a suite of complementary analytical techniques in order to provide scientific evidence on the origins of the Selden map.

Addressing the Challenge

Prior to the recent (2011) conservation of the map, the ISAAC mobile lab visited the Bodleian Library in order to perform in situ spectral imaging with high spatial resolution of selected regions on the map. The analysis enabled pigment identification as well as the examination of painting techniques and signs of alterations. Additional analysis, using both non-invasive and invasive techniques on detached fragments fallen out during the unrolling of the map, provided further confirmation of the identification of the pigments, enabling also the identification of the binding medium used.

A range of non-invasive techniques, from OCT to various spectroscopic techniques (i.e. FORS, FTIR, Raman and XRF spectroscopies) was applied for the detailed examination of the  painting materials. Detailed studies of the binding medium using HPLC-mass spectrometry were performed in collaboration with the John van Geest Cancer Research Centre at NTU.

Making a Difference

The various hypotheses of the origin of the map that have been suggested by past historical research were examined in view of the new evidences. This study provided the identification of the binding medium, with the pigments of the map indicating a South and West Asian influence, suggesting it's place of origin as one of the western ports of the map, with strong Islamic influence.

Moreover, the combination of the results of the non-invasive scientific examination with the detailed observation of the relationship between the trade routes and the magnetic declination led to the conclusion of an alternative origin for the map, with Aceh at the north-west end of Sumatra being proposed.


Academic Investigator:   

Professor Haida Liang (Nottingham Trent University)


Sarah Neate (Bodleian Library)

Dr Lucia Burgio  (Victoria and Albert Museum​)

Research Fellows:            

Dr Chi (Sammy) Cheung (Nottingham Trent University)

Research Students:         

Sotiria Kogou (Nottingham Trent University)



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