The eighteenth century

Philippe Buache’s map of the Antarctic lands

Philippe Buache’s map of the Antarctic lands: a version found only in the Library of Congress

Philippe Buache’s map (supposedly of 1739, although, as we shall see, there are complications with the date) has suffered the same fate as Piri’s and Orontius Finaeus’s maps, to be used as evidence for an ancient civilisation that mapped Antarctica when it was free from ice. According to the title of the map, it is a ‘Carte des Terres Australes comprises entre le Tropique du Capricorne et le Pôle Antarctique où se voyent les nouvelles découvertes faites en 1739 au Sud du Cap de Bonne Esperance’ (‘Map of the Southern Lands contained between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Pole, where the new discoveries made in 1739 to the south of the Cape of Good Hope may be seen’). Despite the frequent Bad Archaeologists’ statements that the map was published in 1737, it gives the date of publication as 5 September 1739. Moreover, the text describes Jean-Baptiste Charles Bouvet de Lozier’s (1704-1786) voyage to the south, which lasted from 19 July 1738 to 24 June 1739.

The map frequently mentions icebergs, freezing temperatures and glaciers; icebergs are even drawn in places. Bouvet’s Cape of the Circumcision, where he was unable to land owing to the icebergs, is now known to be the island that was named after him by the American whaler Benjamin Morrell (1795-1839) in 1822. This makes the claims that Buache’s map shows an ice-free Antarctica all the more bizarre, but it is clear that none of the Bad Archaeologists have bothered to read the French legends that cover the map.

The life of Philippe Buache (1700-1773)

The claims of Bad Archaeologists about Buache’s map ignore a crucial fact: he was the foremost theoretical geographer of his generation, whose published works include hypotheses about the Antarctic continent. Philippe Buache de la Neuville was born in Neuville-en-Pont (France) on 7th February 1700 and studied at the Académie des Sciences, where he won the first prize for architecture in 1721. He subsequently joined the Ministry of the Navy, where his drafting skills enabled him to concentrate on cartography. In 1729 he became geographer to the king, then geographer in the Académie des Sciences, successor to his former teacher and father-in-law, Guillaume Delisle (1675-1726). He pioneered a new form of theoretical geography and, in 1755, was appointed Professor of Geography.

More than a copyist, Buache was an academic geographer who researched his material thoroughly, relying on the most up-to-date information from voyages of discovery. He was the first geographer to recognise the important concept of the watershed and it was this that led him to make a number of deductions, some correct, some not. A correct deduction was the existence of Alaska and the Bering Strait, years before they were officially discovered, while an incorrect deduction was the existence of a central Antarctic sea, which he conjectured to be the source of the icebergs observed by Bouvet in 1738.

Buache’s important published works include Considérations géographiques et physiques sur les découvertes nouvelles dans la grande mer, published in 1754, which contains the first accurate map of the western coast of North America, and Considérations géographiques sur les terres australes et antarctiques, published in 1761, which includes his justification for a belief in a central Antarctic sea. These publications were the works of a major geographical theorist who established some of the fundamental principles of physical geography that have endured to the present day.

The claims

The principal claim made about Buache’s map is that it accurately depicts the subglacial topography of Antarctica. Once again, these claims go back to Hapgood’s 1966 book, Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings. The greatest problem with the claim that the map shows the coastline of Antarctica as it would appear without ice is that we cannot know what an ice-free Antarctica would look like. This is because modern maps of the continent’s subglacial topography have been made while the entire continent is buried under countless millions of tons of ice that have pushed the landmass down into the earth. Remove the ice and two problems immediately occur: sea levels will rise, drowning the present-day ‘coastline’, and isostatic uplift will cause the continent to ‘bounce back’, raising parts of it up to 3,100 metres. What this means is that there is no way to judge the accuracy of Buache’s map if Hapgood’s claims are correct. And if they are correct, why are there so many discrepancies between this map and the Piri Re‘is map, also claimed to show the subglacial topography?

However, the matter does not end there. Like Piri’s map, Buache’s contains numerous annotations and legends, which Bad Archaeologists steadfastly ignore. Over several parts of the southern continent, Buache writes conjecturée (conjectured) and soupçonnée (suspected). On the edges of the map is an account of the 1738-9 expedition of Bouvet de Lozier, which mentions the discovery of icebergs between two and three hundred feet (61-91 m) high and half a league to two or three leagues (2.5-15 km) in circumference. Buache made Cap de la Circoncision at 54° south, below Africa, a northern promontory of the smaller of his two land masses, next to one of the openings of his polar sea, where Bouvet had recorded his many great icebergs. Buache also shows the route of the voyage of Abel Tasman (1603-1659) in 1642-3 as a source for information about the southern lands. The other opening into the inland sea, to the southwest of South America, was placed where Sharpe and Davis had reported icebergs in 1687. Buache believed that the icebergs must have derived from a floating ice sheet, as in the Arctic, rather than from the newly discovered land. This led him to conclude that the southern continent was not a single landmass but two islands separated by a frozen inland sea, from which icebergs detached themselves to float northwards.

The sea shown in the centre of Antarctica did not therefore derive from ancient maps, but from an hypothesis Buache had developed over a number of years. His paper ‘Geographical and physical observations, including a theory of the Antarctic regions and the frozen sea which they are supposed to contain’ was published by The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1763. In it, he hypothesised that the southern pole must contain a frozen sea, fed by mountain ranges and huge rivers, in order to produce icebergs of the size reported by Bouvet; the large sea (Mer Glacial, ‘Glacial Sea’) depicted on the 1739 map is an early version of this hypothesis. On the map, this sea is described as a Bassin terrestre (‘Land-locked basin’), connected to the Southern Ocean by two débouquements (‘outlets’); he believed that Antarctica must possess rivers “as considerable as those of Siberia, which create the icebergs of the North”. The map states that the sea is conjecturée. Buache did not believe that icebergs could form from an ice sheet that had developed on a landmass, as he had no evidence that such ice sheets existed (we now know differently, of course).

The general accuracy of the map is easy to determine: New Zealand is shown as a peninsula of the Antarctic landmass, an obvious error. This mistaken deduction was based on Abel Tasman’s report of his position when he entered the Bay of Assassins and the nearby Isle of the Three Kings, which he discovered in January 1643. Buache simply drew a line between Tasman’s stated position and the land spotted south of the ice floes seen some distance to the south, assuming it all to be land. Buache’s (or, rather, Bouvet’s) Cap de la Circoncision is now known not to be a cape at all but an isolated island – Bouvet Island – not connected with Antarctica.

The original version of Philippe Buache’s map of the southern continent, which does not show two Antarctic islands

The original and more frequently encountered version of Philippe Buache’s map of the southern continent, which does not show two Antarctic islands

Nor does the matter end there. It happens that there are two versions of the map, both bearing the same date. One shows the southern continent with its central sea, the other does not. The version without the continent is the more common, as it occasionally turns up for sale, whereas the only copy ever mentioned of the version favoured by Bad Archaeologists is in the Library of Congress (Washington, USA). The Antarctic-free version of the map is identical in every respect with the version reproduced by Hapgood apart from its depiction of the continent and the annotations (such as conjecturée) on certain features of that continent. Suspicions must be aroused that Hapgood’s version is a later, altered version of the map, as it is much easier to make additions to a map than to remove features already depicted. This is not necessarily to suggest that Hapgood’s version is a forgery; it is possible that Buache published a second edition, incorporating the ideas he put forward in 1761 in Considérations géographiques sur les terres australes et antarctiques. On the other hand, it is curious that, if he were responsible, he did not alter the date. It is also worrying that all the copies that come up for sale are of the Antarctic-free version. Without a detailed examination of the map in the Library of Congress, it is not possible to be certain if it is a copy genuinely printed by Buache but later adulterated, a second edition by Buache, a second edition by another cartographer issued fraudulently in Buache’s name, or an outright modern forgery. There are, in fact, versions of the map thought to have been issued c 1757; perhaps this is a ‘second edition’ and the source of Hapgood’s erroneous publication date of 1737.