Read David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele’s long Smithsonian article on the conclusion that the Vinland Map is a modern forgery. Among other things, it places the map in the context of mythmaking around Viking history and an anti-Catholic, pro-northern-European narrative of American discovery that aimed to displace the Columbus story.
The general consensus has been for some time that the Vinland Map is a modern forgery. A battery of non-destructive tests by Yale University, which holds the map in its Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, have been performed on the map, and the results of those tests have been announced: the map is a fake.
“The Vinland Map is a fake,” said Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which houses the map. “There is no reasonable doubt here. This new analysis should put the matter to rest.”
Basically, the map’s inks contain titanium compounds first used in the 1920s, and an inscription on the parchment was altered to make it seem like the map belonged in a 15th-century bound volume.
Previously: Re-Analyzing the Vinland Map.
We expect maps to tell the truth; indeed we need them to on a fierce and primal level. “I believe cartography enjoys an enviable position of credibility and confidence among the people who see it. If you see it mapped, you believe,” wrote Charles Blow last fall; he was writing in response to Trump’s petty defacement of a hurricane forecast map with a marker. The reaction to Trump’s stunt, was, I thought, revealing. It’s part and parcel with what Matthew Edney refers to as the ideal of cartography: striving toward a universal, unbiased and perfect map.
When a map has a mistake on it, when it’s wrong, it does something funny to our heads. We obey our phones and dashboard GPS navigators even when they send us off a cliff. We concoct nutty theories about ancient civilizations because a 16th-century portolan chart had a funny bend on a coastline. We wonder, because someone wrote “here be dragons” on a map, whether dragons were actually real. We make brain pretzels trying to force maps to be truthful even when they are manifestly wrong.1
Maps have to tell the truth. They simply have to. Maybe that’s why stories about mistakes on the map, and the havoc those mistakes cause, fascinate us so much. Which brings me to three books, all published for the first time in 2016, that talk about map errors of an older kind: islands and other features that appeared on maps, sometimes for centuries, that in the end turned out not to exist.
The general consensus is that the Vinland Map is a modern forgery, not a pre-Columbian 15th-century map showing Norse explorations of North America. That doesn’t seem to stop Yale University from continuing to study the map, which is held in Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The map is being subjected to a battery of non-destructive tests to provide better and more precise physical data about its parchment and ink. The results will be published in a forthcoming book edited by Raymond Clemens, who for the record does not believe the map is authentic. (Neither do I, for what it’s worth.) [GeoLounge]
The Vinland Map is also being put on display for the first time in half a century. It’ll be at the Mystic Seaport’s R. J. Schaefer Gallery in Mystic, CT from 19 May to 30 September.
The definitive book on the Vinland Map, though it may have been overtaken by later investigations and claims, is Kristin A. Seaver’s Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map (Stanford University Press, 2004).
Atlas Obscura has the odd and fascinating story of how a Venetian named Nicolò Zeno created an island in the middle of the North Atlantic called Frisland, in an apparent attempt to claim that Venetian explorers had discovered the New World. After it appeared on Zeno’s 1558 map, it persisted on other maps for a century afterward (it was even claimed for England in 1580), and the existence of Frisland itself was not fully debunked for a long time after that. “The answer to Zeno’s enduring success lies not with his works, but with his audience. For centuries, people believed Zeno because they wanted to believe him. That was Zeno’s true stroke of genius. He created a story too tantalizing for people to ignore.”