The so-called oldest map of North America – the Vinland Map – is found in Yale’s Beinecke Collection in a slim volume with a medieval manuscript. The map claims to show groundbreaking findings on northern exploration in North America, with one blatant caveat: it’s a fake.
The Vinland map first surfaced in 1957, when a London bookseller donated the 15th century document to the British Museum. This 13×19 inch sheet of parchment depicts territories between Europe and Asia, known as Vinland or the New World. The map appears to challenge the common 20th-century narrative of Christoper Columbus’ journey, suggesting that Nordic explorers – not Mediterraneans – were the first Europeans to reach North America.
The British Museum, however, rejected the offer, claiming the card was forged. Since then, a new study has emerged every few years deeming the card a fake: the British Museum in 1967, Yale himself in 1973, the University of California Davis in the 1980s, British researchers in 2002, and several other reports in the 21st century.
On September 1, 2021 – 64 years after the British Museum first rejected the map – Yale published the last of many studies proving the map to be fake. This report is part of a near-completed project that began in 2017 and has since involved at least 100 collective hours of research time, according to Richard Hark, Yale conservation scientist and member of the Vinland research team.
“The reason the Vinland map would be important if it was genuine is that it’s the only map that shows both new [information] on the Asia that Marco Polo had brought and the existence of territories between Europe and Asia, ”history professor Paul Freedman told News. “The fact that this is a fake is unfortunate because it’s wonderful to think that someone started putting the puzzle together before the 16th century.”
History of the mystery
Historians have long expressed doubts about the validity of the map. In 1957 – the same year the British Museum rejected the document – Laurence Witten ’51, a Connecticut bookseller and Yale alumnus, purchased the map and manuscript for $ 3,500 and donated the work to his alma mater. The University, like the museum, remained skeptical about the credibility of the documents.
But barely a year later, the curator of Medieval and Renaissance literature at the Yale Library acquired another medieval manuscript. When Witten saw and analyzed the seemingly unrelated piece, he discovered that his map and manuscript had been written in the same hand as the library document, implying that the Vinland map must be real.
With Yale unable to afford the price Witten asked, another alumnus – Paul Mellon ’29 – agreed to buy the card for almost $ 300,000 and give it to the university if the document could. be verified. Given the potentially monumental importance of the map, Mellon insisted that the existence of the map be kept a secret until a book on the map could be published. Thus, only three academics were allowed to engage in the authentication process, and consultation with specialists was out of the question. The text was published in 1965 and the map was subsequently made public.
Elizabeth Rowe, associate professor of Scandinavian history at the University of Cambridge, explained that historians around the world remain doubtful about the historical accuracy of the map, with a controversial map lecture held at the Smithsonian Institute just a year after its publication. Rowe described four main reasons for historians’ skepticism about the validity of the map: geographic accuracy beyond 15th-century levels of knowledge, inscriptions employing 17th-century Latin instead of 15th-century Latin, phrases from nineteenth-century scholarship and what appeared to be intentional efforts to make the document appear older.
The document involves two pieces glued together, which is supposed to give the impression that the card has been “folded and unfolded so many times that two pieces came apart and had to be re-glued,” she told the News.
However, Rowe said historians do not accept this theory because there is no writing that spans the breaking of the pages. Instead, the text is “very carefully placed” along the left and right of the page break.
Rowe specifically explained that 15th-century scholars had no way of knowing that Greenland was an island, but the map shows both Greenland as an island and a coastline, which seems too precise for the time.
“Due to the pack ice and the maritime and maritime technology they had in the 1440s, no one thinks that anyone could have circled Greenland at the time the map is supposed to have come from,” Rowe said. . “Plus, the depiction of the coast is really remarkably accurate.”
Yale’s most recent study, conducted by two curators from the Yale University library in conjunction with a team of three scientists – including Hark – at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage on the West Yale Campus , has been published on September 1. He confirms the falsity of the map by reiterating that the ink on the map contains a certain titanium compound first marketed in the 1920s, centuries after the map was allegedly drawn.
According to the University statement, this analysis differs from previous work due to the use of X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy – a non-destructive method of identifying elemental distribution that was only recently made usable for scanning entire two-dimensional objects, such as the Vinland map.
“Probably the biggest tool that was different [since the 1973 study] it’s… they were only able to do what’s called a precise analysis, ”Clemens told the News. “So they would pick a particular location and check the ink there. But that spot was a few microns in diameter, so a very, very small sample. And they did it in several different places on the map, and they had consistent results. The big difference is that we now have a tool called XRF scanning… [so] rather than doing some precise analysis, we can set up a matrix and make the entire map … and we were able to show using this tool that every place where there was ink on the map, there was this modern form of titanium.
In an interview with The News, Hark said the estimated cost of the latest study is “really hard to pin down with any level of certainty,” but noted that there was no additional expense beyond that. ‘use of existing instruments and labor cost, which amounted to at least 100 hours for all researchers.
Hark clarified that the project started in 2017 and, while underway, is nearing completion. “A few more parchment samples need to be analyzed that have been collected, and then we need to write our results up for publication in peer-reviewed journals,” he told The News.
Why the attention?
In Clemens’ opinion, the 1973 University-funded analysis provided sufficient evidence that the Vinland map was a forgery. But some skeptics continued to claim the map was genuine, Clemens said, even though study after study has repeatedly confirmed evidence that its production was dated after the 15th century.
“The skeptics had said, ‘Well, if you had tested here instead of here, you would have had this answer’, and so what is it? [new study] did was to say, ‘Okay, we’ve tested every place on the map,’ ”explained Clemens. “But to be honest with you, nothing new has been found. It’s the same anatase, or titanium dioxide, that we had before.
Enduring lingering views that the Vinland map is genuinely authentic is imperative, Clemens says, to ensure scientific integrity.
He said many academics still try to incorporate the map into their historical narratives just in case it ends up being real – but this leads to the production and scattering of inaccurate conclusions.
“One of the things that often goes unnoticed when the popular press does something like this is that there are academics writing about the history of cartography … I don’t want to look stupid to have excluded it, “Clemens explained.” But we know it’s a modern fake. Why are we sticking it here and confusing the people who are coming to the field for the first time or trying to make it seem like that there is a possibility that it is a 15th century map? “
Another reason for the significant attention around the Vinland map is the challenge it presents to Columbus’ status as the first European to reach North America, particularly when taken in the context of the race relations in the United States at the time of the map’s publication.
“In the 1960s, southern Europeans were not considered white,” Clemens explained. “So there was a real feeling that what was going on here was an attempt to invalidate the discovery of Columbus and say that ‘No, no, no, it was always the Northern Europeans who were ahead of the Europeans. from South.’ And so even though in our sense it’s not racial, in the 1960s sense it was.
Indeed, according to a 2018 Yale News Statement Speaking of the map, the unveiling of the map by the University in 1965 “sparked outrage from the Italian-American community of New Haven, who celebrated Columbus as an emblem of Italian culture and a hero of the European era. of discovery ”.
This is why the card will continue to reside at Yale in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts library – according to Clemens. Although the document is a fake, it has nonetheless had – and continues to have – a great impact on the history of global mapping and ethnic relations within New Haven, he said.
Who and why? Historians speak out
Since Yale published its most recent study on September 1, several mainstream media have called the study groundbreaking. But since historians have generally agreed since the 1960s that the map was wrong, the Yale study does not change the scientific community’s understanding of Scandinavian travel, Rowe said.
However, she said the study offered new insight into the origin of the counterfeit, as the research team concluded that the identified anatase compound closely resembles a pigment produced commercially in Norway in 1923.
“When you combine the information about the closest parallel of these pigments with the peculiar Scandinavian perspective of North American geography, it really does appear to be a fake Norwegian,” Rowe told the News.
On the other hand, Clemens does not think it is a fake Norwegian, but rather a map inspired by an Italian document. Specifically, he doubts anyone north of Paris was involved in his production.
Freedman remains interested in who created the map and why.
“Someone must have made money from it, but who and when is still a mystery,” he told The News. “Where did they get this amazing skill so that 100 years later they’re still wondering if it’s genuine or not? “
As the Vinland map continues to reside in Yale’s collection, it will potentially be used to answer these questions about where and when the counterfeiting occurred.
The map can be found with the accompanying manuscripts in the Beinecke Museum at 121 Wall St.