Yale News

The so-called oldest map of North America — the Vinland Map — sits in Yale’s Beinecke collection in a slim volume along with a medieval manuscript. The map purports to show groundbreaking conclusions about Norse exploration into North America, with one glaring caveat: it’s a fake. 

The Vinland Map first surfaced in 1957, when a London book dealer offered the 15th-century document to the British Museum. This 13-by-19-inch sheet of parchment depicts territories between Europe and Asia, known as Vinland or the New World. The map seems to challenge the common 20th-century narrative of Christoper Columbus’ voyage, suggesting that Norse explorers — not Mediterraneans — were the first Europeans to reach North America. 

The British Museum, however, rejected the offer, asserting that the map was forged. Since then, a new study has emerged every few years deeming the map to be a fake: the British Museum in 1967, Yale itself in 1973, the University of California Davis in the 1980s, British researchers in 2002, and several more reports in the 21st century.

On Sept. 1, 2021 — 64 years since the British Museum first rejected the map — Yale released the latest of many studies proving the map is fake. This report is part of a nearly complete project that began in 2017 and has since involved at least 100 collective hours of research time, according to Yale conservation scientist and Vinland research team member Richard Hark. 

“The reason the Vinland Map would be important if it were genuine is that it’s the only map that shows both new [information] about Asia that Marco Polo had brought and the existence of territories standing between Europe and Asia,” history professor Paul Freedman told the News. “The fact that it’s a fake is unfortunate because it’s wonderful to think somebody had started to put together the puzzle before the 16th century.”

 

History of mystery

 

Historians have long voiced doubts about the map’s validity. In 1957 — the same year that the British Museum rejected the document — Connecticut-based book dealer and Yale alumnus Laurence Witten ’51 purchased the map and manuscript for $3,500 and offered the work to his alma mater. The University, like the museum, remained skeptical of the documents’ credibility. 

But just one year later, the curator of medieval and renaissance literature for Yale’s library acquired another medieval manuscript. When Witten saw and analyzed the seemingly unrelated piece, he found that his map and manuscript were penned by the same hand as the library’s document, implying that the Vinland Map must be real.

Yale was unable to afford Witten’s asking price, so another alumnus — Paul Mellon ’29 — agreed to buy the map for nearly $300,000 and gift it to the University if the document could be verified. Given the map’s potentially monumental significance, Mellon was adamant that the map’s existence be kept under wraps until a book about the map could be published. Thus, only three scholars were allowed to engage with the authentication process, and consultation with specialists was out of the question. The text was published in 1965 and the map was subsequently released for public view. 

Elizabeth Rowe, an associate professor of Scandinavian history at the University of Cambridge, explained that historians worldwide remained doubtful of the map’s historical accuracy, with a controversial conference about the map held at the Smithsonian Institute barely a year after its publicization. Rowe described four main reasons for historians’ skepticism of the map’s validity: geographical accuracy exceeding 15th-century knowledge levels, inscriptions employing 17th-century instead of 15th-century Latin, phrases drawing from 19th-century scholarship and what seemed 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 map was “folded and unfolded so many times that two pieces came apart and had to be taped back together again,” she told the News. 

However, Rowe said historians do not buy this theory because there is no writing that stretches across the break in 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 Greenland was an island, but the map shows both Greenland as an island and a coastline, which seems too accurate for the time period.

“Because of the sea ice, and the shipping and maritime technology that they had in the 1440s, nobody thinks that anybody could have circumnavigated Greenland at the time that the map is supposed to be from,” Rowe said. “Also, the depiction of the coast is really remarkably accurate.”

Yale’s most recent study, conducted by two Yale University Library conservators in conjunction with a team of three scientists — including Hark — at the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage on Yale’s West Campus, was published on Sept. 1. It confirms the map’s falseness by reiterating that the map’s ink contains a certain titanium compound first made commercially available in the 1920s, centuries after the map was supposedly drawn. 

Per the University’s 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] is… they were only able to do what’s called pinpoint analysis,” Clemens told the News. “So they would choose a particular spot, and they would check the ink at that spot. But that spot was a few microns in diameter, so a very, very small sample. And they did that in several different places throughout the map, and they had consistent results. The big difference is that we have a tool now called scanning XRF… [so] rather than just doing a few pinpoint analyses, we can set up a matrix and do the entire map… and we were able to show using that tool that every place that there was ink on the map, there was this modern form of titanium.”

In an interview with the News, Hark said the estimated cost for the latest study is “really difficult to pin down with any level of certainty,” but did note that there was no additional expense beyond the use of existing instruments and cost of labor, which amounted to at least 100 hours across all researchers. 

Hark clarified that the project began in 2017 and, though ongoing, is nearly complete. “A few more samples of parchment need to be analyzed that have been collected and then we need to write up our results for publication in peer-reviewed journals,” he told the News.

 

Why the attention?

 

In Clemens’ view, the University-funded 1973 analysis provided sufficient evidence of the Vinland Map being a fake. But some skeptics continued to assert the map was authentic, Clemens said, even as study after study repeatedly confirmed evidence that its production was dated after the 15th-century.

“The skeptics had said, ‘Well, if you tested over here rather than over here, you would have had this answer,’ and so what this [new study] did was say, ‘Okay, we’ve tested every spot on the map,’” Clemens explained. “But to be honest with you, there wasn’t some new element that was found. It’s the same anatase, or titanium dioxide, that we had before.”

According to Clemens, shutting down lingering views that the Vinland Map is indeed genuine is imperative to ensuring scholarly integrity.

He said many academics still try to fit the map into their historical narratives just in case it ends up being real — but this leads to the production and dispersion of inaccurate conclusions.

“One of the things that often gets missed when the popular press does something like this is that there are academics who write on the history of cartography… and keep trying to fit it into the history just in case it happens to be real, and they don’t want to look foolish for having excluded it,” Clemens explained. “But we know it’s a modern forgery. Why are we sticking it here and confusing people that are first coming to the field or trying to make it look like there’s a possibility that it might be 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, especially when taken in the context of race relations in the United States at the time of the map’s release. 

“In the 1960s, southern Europeans were not considered to be white,” Clemens explained. “So there was a real sense that what was going on here was an attempt to invalidate Columbus’s discovery and to say that ‘No, no, no, it was always northern Europeans that were ahead of the southern Europeans.’ And so even though in our sense it’s not racial, in the 1960s sense it was.”

In fact, according to a 2018 Yale News statement about the map, the University’s unveiling of the map in 1965 “triggered outrage among New Haven’s Italian-American community, which celebrated Columbus as an emblem of Italian culture and a hero of the European Age of Discovery.”

This is why the map will continue to reside at Yale in the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscripts Library — according to Clemens. Though the document is a fake, it nonetheless had — and continues to have — a great impact on the history of global cartography and ethnic relations within New Haven, he said. 

 

Who and why? Historians weigh in

 

Since Yale’s publication of its most recent study on Sept. 1, multiple mainstream news outlets have heralded the study as groundbreaking. But since historians have generally agreed since the 1960s that the map was fake, Yale’s study does not change the scientific community’s understanding of Norse travels, Rowe said. 

However, she said the study offered new information about the origin of the forgery, as the research team concluded that the identified anatase compound closely resembles a pigment commercially produced in Norway in 1923.

“When you combine the information about the closest parallel to these pigments with the particular Scandinavian perspective on North American geography, it really looks as though this is Norwegian forgery,” Rowe told the News.

On the other hand, Clemens does not believe this is Norwegian forgery, but rather a map inspired by an Italian document. More specifically, he doubts that anyone north of Paris was involved in its production.

Freedman remains interested in who created the map and why.

“Somebody must have made some money off of this, but who and when still remains a mystery,” he told the News. “Where did they get this extraordinary skill so that 100 years later, they’re still fussing over whether it’s genuine or not?”

As the Vinland Map continues to reside in Yale’s collection, it will be used to potentially answer these questions of where and when the forgery occurred.

The map is located along with the accompanying manuscripts at the Beinecke Museum at 121 Wall St.

ANIKA SETH