From the Archive: The Changing Face of Iceland Skip to content

From the Archive: The Changing Face of Iceland

A Thousand Years of Maps

Words by
Haraldur Sigurðsson

From the archive: In this 1971 article from Iceland Review, Haraldur Sigurðsson delves into the history of Icelandic cartography. Note that this archival content may not necessarily reflect the current editorial standards of Iceland Review.

Those who know something about the country find the shape of Iceland on maps fairly familiar. Although there are Icelanders who are not particularly knowledgeable about topography, the main features of the coastline, fjords, bays, and promontories are so familiar to them that there can be no question of confusion with other countries. Nevertheless, this picture of Iceland is hardly 150 years old. People who were alive in the early part of the 19th century and before held rather different ideas about the country, though these were at last not so far from what is now considered accurate. The history of Icelandic cartography can be traced far back into the obscure past when only the main outlines were known, and the rest was shrouded in mystery. A comparison of the maps of Iceland from different periods reveals to us part of Man’s striving to explore his environment and to grope his way forward from absurd conceptions to growing realism and a more reliable viewpoint.

historical map of iceland
The Anglo-Saxon map

Iceland first appears on the so-called Anglo-Saxon map of the world in the British Museum. This is estimated to have been around the time when the Christian faith was adopted in Iceland, or about the year 1000 A.D., i.e., just over a hundred years after the country is said to have been first settled. In the sea northeast of Britain and a peninsula, which is probably Jutland though it is named Norway, there is a largish country with its greatest extent running from east to west. It is broadest in the east, but narrows towards the west, where it ends in a point or ness. At the extreme east of this country, there is the name Iceland, which is not known to have appeared before in older sources. At the western extremity is the name Scridefinnas (the Skridfinnar or Lapps), who appear there like a deus ex machina.

The ideas of cartographers about lands and peoples in the North have been very unreliable at various periods, and there are even examples from more recent times. In the Middle Ages, ecclesiastics made a fair number of maps, probably inheriting the tradition from the days of the Roman Empire, for most of the more interesting ones can presumably be traced to Roman maps. Many of these have been preserved to this day. The Bible and ancient classical literature were the main sources, which were supplemented by various materials from medieval authors, folklore motifs, and migratory legends. Finally, there were various types of contemporary educative material, though this was for a long time not very conspicuous. The map was more of a pictorial story than a map in our way of thinking. Some of the biggest maps formed altar-pieces, and their purpose was rather to confirm churchgoers in their belief in minor religious doctrines than to give them any practical idea of foreign countries and peoples, such knowledge being seldom available. Iceland appears on some of the major medieval maps, and in some cases, it lies northeast of the British Isles but south of Norway. This applies particularly to maps that may be considered of English origin, although they may not all have been made in England. On other maps, Iceland is placed somewhere at the northwestern edge of the globe, or else it is confused with Thule, an island said to have been visited by Greek seafarers in the 4th century B.C.

historical map of iceland
Fixlandia type

English, Portugese, and French Sailors

In the 15th century, two new types of Iceland maps appeared on the scene. One may be traced to the interest aroused by the Ptolemy maps when the latter arrived in Western Europe from Constantinople in the first years of the century. These formed, for a long time, the basis of all attempts at scientific cartography. It was a Dane, Claudius Clavus, who took the initiative and made two separate versions of maps on Scandinavia, with which Iceland was included. The older version fell into oblivion until the 19th century. The younger version, probably dating from the years 1425-1439, became for nearly a hundred years the prototype for most, if not all, printed maps of Iceland. Nevertheless, Clavus’s knowledge of the country was extremely scanty. He knew roughly where Iceland was situated and he knew of the bishoprics there, but that was about all. The place-names are quite numerous, but they are the names of the Runic alphabet and were probably intended as a bluff to cover up a lack of knowledge. The country is elliptical in shape, its main direction lying from south to north. It is largely the location of Iceland and Greenland that gives the Clavus maps some stamp of accuracy.

At about the same time, or perhaps a little later, a new version of Iceland appeared on marine charts of the Mediterranean peoples. The country is actually called Fixlanda (written in different ways), but there is little doubt that Iceland is meant, whatever may be the reason for the name, the origin of which is quite vague and a matter for much conjecture. The shape of Iceland is incredibly accurate and much more so than on the Clavus maps. The main features of the south and west coasts are almost correct and clearly indicate the Reykjanes peninsula, the Snaefellsnes peninsula, and the Northwest Fjords, though the proportions are a little faulty. Even the islands of the Breidafjordur Bay are included, and although they are placed west of Snaefellsnes, this is by no means a worse error than was usual on contemporary maps of that period in connection with places near well-known sea routes. There are quite a lot of place-names, but many of these cannot be pinpointed, and some seem to refer to features rather than to settlements. There are various indications that these Iceland charts originated with English seafarers who began sailing there in the early part of the 15th century, and some of whom at the same time traded with the countries of the Mediterranean. For a while, they dominated the ideas of the Iceland cartographers, and they did not finally disappear until about 1600. But long before, or soon after 1500, they seem to have become the basis for a new Iceland chart in the hands of Portuguese and French sailors. The Fixlanda name is replaced by the correct appellation of the country. These maps are often attributed to the port of Dieppe in France, where several of them were actually made, but they seem to have largely originated in Portugal. They were for some years extremely accurate and the best made before the map of Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson.

historical map of iceland
Sigurður Stefánsson, Map of the North, c. 1590

In 1532, a new description of Scandinavia was published, written by Jacob Ziegler, a traveling scholar. The book is usually referred to as Schondia, but its full name was much longer, as was customary in those days. It was accompanied by a new map of Scandinavia, on which the south-north direction of the peninsula first appeared. Until then, the main direction had most often been shown from east to west. The map thus marks an important contribution to the cartography of Norway and Sweden. However, the same cannot be said about Iceland, which is portrayed as a long and narrow island from north to south. This shows that there was an extremely limited acquaintance with Iceland. Places marked on Iceland include both the bishopric and the Hekla peninsula, where the famous volcano appears for the first time on a map, though it seems to have been confused with the Snaefellsjokull glacier. Other place-names were taken from Clavus’s Runic names. Ziegler’s map received little distribution but was included in some Ptolemy editions, as well as a few other maps and globe-gores.

What put an end to the Ziegler map was that seven years later, a new map of Scandinavia, much more detailed, was made by Olaus Magnus. This was printed in Venice in 1539. The author was a Swedish Church dignitary who fled at the time of the Reformation and lived for the rest of his life in Germany and Italy, where he received the title of Archbishop. The map is in many ways a remarkable achievement and is an inexhaustible source of information on the beliefs, culture, and economy of the Scandinavian peoples, as well as on the nature of the Scandinavian countries. This applies principally to Sweden, though there are also many details about the other Nordic lands. Olaus Magnus later wrote a large and informative book about the Nordic countries, which was a sort of explanatory text to the map.

Iceland is shown more or less in an oblong shape, with its main direction being from southwest to northeast. A few place-names indicate increased knowledge, though certain other markings undoubtedly betray limited and dubious sources, probably found by the author in the seaports of North Germany and the Netherlands, from where ships frequently sailed to Iceland for trade and fishing. These sources are largely unidentified, though their existence seems to be confirmed by the fact that Gerhard Mercator appears to have used them independently when he made his globe in 1541. On the other hand, some people claim that Mercator was basing himself on a map by Olaus Magnus. In his later maps, the map of Europe of 1554 and the map of the world of 1569, Mercator adopted a large part of the extra material that Olaus had about Iceland. This and other things could indicate that he had not known Olaus’s map when he made his globe, this being only two years older.

historical map of iceland
Olaus Magnus, 1539

No Geographical Calculations

The Iceland maps of Olaus and Mercator set the example for most printed maps during the next fifty years, particularly because Abraham Ortelius included them in his famous collection, Theatrum orbis terrarum, of which there were published between 30 and 40 editions in the period 1570-1612. Ortelius was, in fact, the first person to publish the new Iceland map of Bishop Gudbrandur Thorlaksson, but as was the custom in those days, he allowed the former map to be shown side by side with the new one. On sea-charts, which were seldom printed, the old Fixlanda version was still prevalent, though often in the revised Portuguese or French editions. Nobody knows for certain when the Iceland map of Bishop Gudbrandur (1541-1627) was made, for it is seldom mentioned in Icelandic sources. It was first published in Additamentum IV. Theatri orbis terrarum, 1590, as an additional volume to his map collection, but an inscription on the map itself states that it was engraved in copper in 1585, so it must be somewhat older. The map is not attributed to the Bishop himself, but to a Danish scholar who probably obtained it from the Bishop and sent it to Ortelius. Five years later, it was published in a somewhat amended form in the original edition of the Mercator map collection (1595).

It is not known how the Bishop made his map or what his sources were for the small details. As an Icelander, he was, of course, much better acquainted with Iceland than the foreigners who had earlier tried to make maps of the country based on scant and dubious material. However, it seems obvious that when he traced the coastline, he relied most heavily on the list of fjords, which had been available for the whole coast from ancient times and is still preserved. There are also indications that the Bishop used old church lists, though this is not certain, as he, as a church leader, was fully conversant with ecclesiastical affairs. There is nothing to show, on the other hand, that any measurements or geographical calculations were made. However, it is known that the Bishop worked out the geographical position of the Holar bishopric at least, though this is different on the map and probably of a later date. Statements made by the scholar Arngrimur Jonsson (1568-1648) indicate that the Bishop and Arngrimur (who were related) were not impressed by the final version of the Ortelius and Mercator map. Yet despite all the shortcomings, this map is the oldest to give some sort of realistic picture of Iceland.

historical map of iceland
Bishop Gudbrandur’s Map of Iceland from Ortelius Additamentum Theatri orbis terranum, 1590

However, neither of these maps enjoyed a long life. That was to be the good fortune of those by another man, Joris Carolus, a Dutch seafarer who at one time sailed far and wide on the northern seas. He stayed for a period in Iceland, where he met the scholar Jon Gudmundsson (1574-1658), who reproduces in his writings some highly dubious information about the Gunnbjorn Islands obtained from the former. The basis for Joris Carolus’s map is the Iceland map of Bishop Gudbrandur in the Mercator version; his deviations from the latter are no great improvement, and his knowledge of Iceland seems to have been poor. The original print of this Iceland map was to be found in the incomplete map collection of Jodocus Hondius, the Younger, dating from 1615-1629.

Then it passed into the collections of Blaeus and Jansonius, both of which were issued in many editions in several languages for a long period. In addition, the map became a prototype of Iceland maps in French and Italian collections. For more than a century after that, the Joris Carolus map was the basis of all Iceland maps, although minor alterations were made to the Icelandic coastline on Dutch sea charts of the 17th and 18th centuries. Sea charts at that time were almost exclusively drawn by the Dutch.

Bishop Thordur Thorlaksson (1637-1697) made a new map of Iceland about 1670. It exists in three rather different versions, but it is based on the map of Bishop Gudbrandur, his great-grandfather. These maps have various shortcomings, though they do show some improvement on older ones, but they were not published until this century and therefore were of little or no use.

historical map of iceland
Hieronymus Gourmontius, 1548

The Danish trade monopoly merchants deplored the lack of reasonably good sea charts of the Icelandic coasts, especially in the vicinity of harbours and trading stations. Dutch charts hardly met their navigational requirements, for the Dutch and other nations except the Danes were forbidden to sail to Icelandic ports. To remedy this situation, the Danish government decided in 1651 to send Bagge Wandel to Iceland, in particular, to survey the harbours. It is not known whether anything came of this project, or whether Bagge Wandel ever came to Iceland. During the following 70 years, nothing more was done in this matter, and all projects were suspended. Finally, in 1721, the Danish government sent an Icelander named Magnus Arason (1683-1728) to Iceland, who had for a time been an engineer’s officer in the Danish Army. He was asked to survey Iceland and to make land maps and sea charts for the “pleasure of his Majesty.” Magnus immediately set to work and worked on his maps for the next seven years until he was drowned in Breidafjordur in 1728. His funds were limited, and he had no assistants, so the task took some time. However, he managed to complete maps of the greater part of West Iceland, from the Reykjanes peninsula to the southern part of the Northwest Fjords.

The Interior Was Empty

After Magnus’s death, some Norwegian surveyors were sent to Iceland under the leadership of T. H. H. Knopf. They finished their task in a few years, for they received much more money, and their conditions of employment were greatly improved. There was no hurry to publish the results, however, for publication was not effected until 1944, and the work was treated almost as a military and state secret. Maps based on the Knopf map were, nevertheless, published in 1752 to accompany Niels Horrebow’s travel book on Iceland, Tilforladelige Efterretninger om Island (English edition: The Natural History of Iceland, London 1758). An improved reproduction appeared in Nuremberg in 1761 under the auspices of the well-known map publisher Homann: Insvlae Islandia Delineatio. These maps became for a long time the prototype for most Iceland maps, though various minor alterations were made to them, especially under the guidance of Jon Eriksson (1728-1787).

Though the Knopf map was a considerable advance on the map of Bishop Gudbrandur, it was far from being perfect. For example, the Arctic Circle runs through Arnarfjordur, so that much of the Northwest Fjords appears too far north, but Melrakkasletta (Northeast Iceland) is nearly in the right place. Furthermore, the larger and more exact maps of specific parts of Iceland lay buried and forgotten under piles of Danish government documents, and the printed maps were little more than inadequate extracts from them. The authorities thus felt the necessity for a new survey of Iceland, and as before, sea charts were considered of prime importance. In 1776, a Danish surveyor, Hans Erik Minor, was sent out for hydrographic work: after being engaged in this for two years, he and an assistant were drowned in the summer of 1778. He had finished mapping the coasts of Faxa Bay and Breidafjordur, and his maps were published in 1788. After Minor’s death, there was an interval until 1800 when work was commenced anew, mainly under the direction of Norwegian officers, not being completed until 1819. These maps were then published in 1818-1822 under the supervision of Poul Lovenorn, who at that time was Head of the Danish Sea Chart Department (Det danske Sokortarkiv) and made some detailed explanatory notes about them.

historical map of iceland
South-western quadrant of Gunnlaugsson's 1844 map of Iceland.

Then, in 1826, a general map of the whole coastline of Iceland was issued: Voxende Kaart over Island og Faeroeme. There, for the first time, the country was drawn more or less accurately. The map shows only the coastline and its immediate hinterland, together with those mountains visible from the sea that could be used by sailors for orientation purposes. The interior of the country was quite empty. This gap was filled by Bjorn Gunnlaugsson (1788-1876). He began a survey in 1831 and continued his work most summers until 1843. He used the coast maps as a basis as far as he could and did his survey with their assistance. He was particularly interested in mapping the inhabited areas, though in this task he had often to rely on oral descriptions and sketches by people with local knowledge. The uninhabited and desert areas had largely to be neglected. Although Bjorn traveled extensively, large tracts were drawn solely according to statements by other people. The survey was only done during summer, while each winter Bjorn made proper drawings from the sketches he drew the previous summer. He then sent them to Copenhagen, where they were processed again, joined together or reduced, largely under the direction of O.N. Olsen, to whom the map is sometimes attributed. The general map was printed in four sheets, the first being issued in 1844 under the name Uppdrattur Islands, and the map is always dated to that year, even though the last sheet was not published until 1848. This was the first time that a really satisfactory map of Iceland was drawn, the main features of which form the picture held by all those who are at all familiar with the country. In the circumstances, Bjorn’s drawing was excellent and represents one of the greatest achievements in the field of Icelandic geography and natural history. Nevertheless, the map has some shortcomings, but Bjorn was a realistic man who realized that in the conditions in which he had to work, he would never finish his task if everything had to be based on his own survey and according to the strictest mathematical rules.

Since those days, much survey work and cartography has been done in better conditions and with more modern equipment, so that Iceland has now been fully explored and reconnoitered.

Share article