A recent scientific analysis offers new evidence that the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Vinland map is an authentic record of the New World predating Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage. The analysis refutes the findings of tests conducted in 2002, after which some scientists claimed the document was a forgery.
Jacqueline Olin, a retired researcher who conducted her analysis with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, said Nov. 25 that while other studies have asserted fraudulence in the map due to anachronistic elements found in its ink, her study shows there is no reason to assume the ink does not date to the medieval period.
Discovered in 1957, the Vinland map, which includes a depiction of the northern Atlantic coast of North America, also features a legend written in medieval Latin describing Norseman Leif Ericsson’s purported discovery of the New World circa 1000 A.D. It was donated anonymously to the University in 1965, although Paul A. Mellon ’29 later took credit for the donation.
Chemistry and applied physics professor John Tully, who has spent years analyzing the map, said while the Olin analysis offers strong support in favor of the map’s validity, there is no conclusive way to prove if it is real or a hoax.
“Above all else, the people at Beinecke and I want to get the right answer — real or fake?” he said. “But I don’t see [the possibility of] a further study that is definitive. Even if you were willing to destroy the whole map [for Carbon-14] testing, I don’t know how you would prove it conclusively one way or the other.”
The map’s validity was first seriously questioned in the 1970s when researcher Walter McCrone found the ink contained anatase, a form of titanium dioxide commonly found in 20th century inks as a substitute for lead. Anatase does occur naturally, but the crystals found in the map’s ink were too regular-shaped to have been natural, McCrone said.
Olin’s new analysis argues that the presence of anatase does not prove the map to be a forgery. The medieval ink-making process created green vitoral, the primary substance used for ink in the 15th and 16th centuries. Vitoral also produced anatase, which could easily have been mixed into the ink solution, she said.
Olin’s study analyzed the other minerals in the ink — including zinc, aluminum and copper — all of which, she said, would have been byproducts of the medieval ink-manufacturing process. Sulfide ores created in the process could also have produced anatase that wound up in the ink, she said.
Olin said she intends to study medieval documents in an effort to determine whether their inks also contain anatase, zinc, aluminum and copper, which would lend credence to her conclusion that the amounts of anatase in the map’s ink are inconsequential.
“That’s not proof of a forgery by any means,” she told the Associated Press.
But McCrone and his supporters said evidence shows the map to be a forgery.
In 2002, Robin Clark, a professor of inorganic chemistry at University College London, published a report concurring with McCrone’s claim that the map is forged. The report argued the distinction between the age of the parchment itself and the map drawn on its surface, claiming the alleged difference proves the map to be a fake. The parchment has been carbon-dated to the year 1434, plus or minus 11 years.
But the validity of Clark’s report has been called into question.
“I took my name off [Clark’s] paper because I didn’t think their study was conclusive,” said Tully, who contributed to the Clark report. “They found trace elements of anatase, but it wasn’t the base, as far as I could see. We didn’t see that much, and it wasn’t everywhere that it should have been if the map was forged.”
Robert Babcock, curator of early books and manuscripts at Beinecke library, authorized the removal of a piece of the parchment for carbon dating in 2002.
Babcock could not be reached for comment.
The complete version of Olin’s paper can be found in the December issue of the scientific journal “Analytical Chemistry.”