This article is from
Creation 29(4):54–55, September 2007

Browse our latest digital issue Subscribe

Ancient mariners had current knowledge


This ancient map of the Nordic countries—published over 450 years ago—is renowned for its comprehensiveness and general accuracy.

As well as geographical information about coastlines, lakes, towns, etc., the map includes numerous small pictorials. These sketches give an insight into life and living conditions in each area at that time, depicting, for example, farming, milking, fishing, hunting—one scene shows wolves apparently unable to attack moose on slippery ice.

From the collections of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus consists
Click CURRENT MAP for larger image
The 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus consists of nine wood lithographs,5 which fit together into a nearly seamless whole, 1.7 m (5 ft 7 in) wide and 1.25 m (4 ft 1 in) high. It is on display at the Uppsala University Library, Sweden.

While these land details are interesting to many, it seems the primary focus of the publisher, Olaus Magnus, in making this map was more to provide information about life at, and in, the sea—he named the map ‘Carta Marina’.

Among the numerous pictorials, one can see ships plying cargo, ambergris floating on the sea surface, driftwood along the coast of Greenland, and Eskimos kayaking in the far north.

The map also shows drift ice north of Iceland, including a stranded polar bear on a floe. While many creatures are easily recognizable—whales, sea lions, walruses, crabs, lobsters—others are not so, e.g. an array of giant sea snakes and other monsters (some of which are shown attacking shipping) adorn the map.1

Mostly the waters are drawn using more-or-less straight, thin, dotted lines with the occasional wiggle or swirl to break the monotony, but there are some notable exceptions. For example, the famous tidal whirlpool in the Lofoten Islands is clearly indicated.

Also, off the east coast of Iceland, the lines morph into a large group of whorls (circular patterns). Artistic licence, maybe? Not so, say researchers, who recently compared these elaborate sea swirls with thermal satellite images and found something surprising—the map ‘almost perfectly’ represents the ocean currents and eddies that swirl today.2

‘They are the earliest known description of large-scale eddies in the ocean—these are huge bodies of water, 100 km [60 miles] in diameter, that turn slowly,’ explained Professor Tom Rossby of the University of Rhode Island, USA. ‘It seems the lines were deliberately drawn to aid navigation.’3

The researchers describe how the whorls on the map correspond to thermal satellite pictures of the Iceland-Faroes Front, where warm saline waters from a northern branch of the Gulf Stream meet cold fresh waters coming down from the Arctic.2

So how did the artist know? Ancient traders and mariners would have told him, say the researchers, who add that this information ‘must have been well-known to earlier generations of Iceland farers including Norse Vikings, the first major settlers of Iceland.’2 And how were they able to accurately record and transmit this information with such apparent precision?

For many people today who think that we are the result of a long evolutionary progression from ‘primitive’ ancestors, news of the ancients having such advanced knowledge is surprising. As New Scientist observed, ‘The discovery has astonished oceanographers.’4

However, given what the Bible tells us, we shouldn’t be quite so astonished at the observational powers and intelligence of ancient people. Man has always been observant and intelligent—right from the very first man, Adam, created in the image of God, only around 6,000 years ago.

Posted on homepage: 15 December 2008

References and notes

  1. The map also shows an island called Tile, which does not appear to exist today. This may be related to the mythical Thule, supposed to have been the most northern community in the world. Return to text.
  2. Rossby, H.T. and Miller, P., Ocean Eddies in the 1539 Carta Marina by Olaus Magnus, Oceanography 16(4):77–88, 2003. Return to text.
  3. Kettlewell, J., Ancient map captures ocean front, BBC News, news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/3683087.stm, 28 September 2004. Return to text.
  4. Anon., Ancient map is eerily right about eddies, New Scientist 182(2446):6, 8 May 2004. Return to text.
  5. All nine sections of the Carta Marina can be viewed at bell.lib.umn.edu/map/OLAUS/carta.html. Return to text.