An Austrian collector has found what may be the oldest globe to depict the New World, engraved with immaculate detail on two conjoined halves of ostrich eggs.
The globe, dated to 1504 and about the size of a grapefruit, is labelled in Latin and includes what were considered exotic territories such as Japan, Brazil and Arabia. North America is depicted as a group of scattered islands. The globe's lone sentence, above the coast of Southeast Asia, is "Hic Sunt Dracones".
"'Here be dragons', a very interesting sentence," said Thomas Sander, editor of the Portolan, the journal of the Washington Map Society. The journal published a comprehensive analysis of the globe by collector Stefaan Missinne. "In early maps, you would see images of sea monsters; it was a way to say, 'There's bad stuff out there'."
The only other map or globe on which this specific phrase appears is what can arguably be called the egg's twin: the copper Hunt-Lenox Globe, dated around 1510 and housed by the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library. Before the egg, the famous copper globe had been the oldest one known to show the New World. The two contain remarkable similarities.
After comparing the two globes, Missinne concluded that the Hunt-Lenox Globe is a cast of the engraved ostrich egg. Many minute details, such as the lines and contours of the egg's territories, oceans and script, match those on the well-studied Hunt-Lenox Globe.
The egg's shape is slightly irregular, while the copper globe is a perfect sphere. Also, the markings around the equator of the egg, where the halves are joined, appear quite muddled.
Missinne argues the egg has shrunk and warped over time, and he confirmed a loss in shell density by using computed tomography. He also says the halves were cast separately, then joined later with a type of glue that obscured the engraving around the equator.
The egg, whose owner remains anonymous, was bought last year at the London Map Fair from a dealer who said it had been part of an important European collection for decades, according to Missinne. From there, Missinne, a real estate project developer, consulted more than 100 scholars and experts in his year-long analysis of the globe.
Missinne speculated the globe could have loose connections to the workshop of Leonardo da Vinci, based on the etching of an Indian Ocean ship similar to one by an artist well acquainted with da Vinci. The egg has no name engraved on it, so the maker is unknown.
But Sander thinks someone from Leonardo's era consolidated knowledge from travellers and made the globe for an Italian noble family.
"In that time period, the ostrich was quite the animal, and it was a big thing for the noble people to have ostriches in their gardens," Sander said.
Other scholars who have heard about the egg said they find Missinne's work impressive but want more details.
John Hessler, of the Library of Congress, said he saw "a couple red flags" while reading Missinne's paper.
He has heard from several sources that Missinne is actually the anonymous owner of the globe, raising a possible conflict of interest, given that Missinne is touting the importance of the discovery.