The Mystic Seaport Museum is making a bit of history this summer as it displays the Vinland Map, making it available to the public outside the grounds of Yale University for the first time in more than 50 years. Their exhibit, Science, Myth, and Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga explores the storied history of this map and the debate around which Europeans “discovered” the Americas first, the Vikings or Christopher Columbus (In reality, the Americas was first "found" and inhabited by humans some 24,000 years ago when people crossed the Bering Sea Ice Sheet).
The Vinland Map was set to be an explosive revelation when it emerged in 1957. It is claimed to be a classic medieval map of the world that showed the entire “known world” as a spherical projection. It includes Europe, Asia, and Africa. What is unique about the map is the landmass it shows southwest of Greenland in the Atlantic, bearing the name Vinland (thus the Vinland Map). However, as the map claimed to be from the 15 century it would make it Pre-Columbian, thus showing the “discovery” of North America by the Vikings as claimed in the accompanying text that stated the region was visited in the 11 century by Europeans.
At the time, a map claiming that North America's first European visitors were Vikings and not Christopher Columbus was a historical coup de gras. However, when the map first came to light there was some question about its validity. It lacked a history and provenance. How had this map evaded historians for so long only to turn up in the late 1950’s? While the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase the map, the post-World War II era did reveal many pieces of lost history as antiquities changed hands and were unearthed throughout the war and post-war period.
The Vinland Map's sudden appearance was explainable via this reality and it appeared to be authentic in other ways, too. First, it was bound with an authentic medieval text, The Tartar Relation, which lent credence to the authenticity of the Vinland Map. Questions still remained, however, as wormholes in both the Vinland Map and The Tartar Relation were incongruent (while called wormholes, these holes, used for authentication of old works, are the work beetles). After the British Museum passed up the opportunity to purchase the Vinland Map, seller, Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry, found a new buyer in Laurence C. Witten II. Witten purchased the book and then offered to sell it and the map to his Alma Mater, Yale University.
While Yale was also initially skeptical of the Vinland Map’s authenticity, their concerns were assuaged in the spring of 1958 when Witten’s friend and Yale librarian, Irving Davis, acquired a copy of Vincent of Beauvais's encyclopedic Speculum Historiale. The copy of Speculum Historale allowed for the previous incongruent wormholes of the Vinland Map and The Tarter Relation to be correctly aligned showing that they had once been bound together (although in a different order) lending credibility to the map’s provenance.
As Yale's confidence improved they turned to another alumnus in an effort to acquire the map, as they claimed to not be able to afford the asking price, and thus Paul Mellon (yes of those Mellons) agreed to buy the map and donate it to Yale University pending its final authentication.
Paul Mellon placed further requisites on the process by insisting that the Vinland Map be kept secret until a scholarly work, proving its authenticity, was published by the University. This secrecy possibly stunted a better beginning to the Vinland Map's unveiling. The authors of the book were limited in who they could talk to, getting much of their history from Witten without investigating other historical frameworks. Only one of the authors, Dr. Raleigh Ashlin Skelton, had any sort of expertise in authenticating the map as he was in charge of the British Museum's map collection and had a background in such things. But relying on their small group, who all had ties to the Vinland Map, ended up stunting their academic standing.
The discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows (1960) was revealed in 1964, a year before the publication of the study of the Vinland Map. It is the only known Viking settlement in North America, which sits along the northern tip of Newfoundland. It can be assumed this helped bolster the academic confidence in the Vinland Map's authenticity as they prepared to go to press.
And so the day before Columbus Day in 1965 the Vindland Map was made public, and the book, The Vinland Map, and the Tartar Relation were published. Almost immediately there was pushback from the academic world as questions were raised about this mysterious map that had seemed to pop onto the world stage out of the ether. The map was so contentious that a year after it was revealed to the public, the Smithsonian Institute held a conference on the authenticity of the map to hear the many theories and questions that had arisen. The numerous concerns of its authenticity ranged from issues with how it was drawn not fitting in with other historical maps of the day to the nomenclature of the Latin used in the descriptions that appeared to use much more modern vernacular ("modern" meaning 17th century as opposed to the proclaimed 15th century).
While much skepticism was raised about the map's validity, its authenticity was called into even deeper question in 1972 when analysis of the ink found traces of titanium dioxide, an additive to pale pigments that began to be used in the 1920s. The ink was retested in the '80s and '90s as questions were raised about contamination and methodology of previous tests. Carbon dating of the parchment dated it to the early- to mid-15th century. However, the existence of tiny traces of fallout from nuclear testing in the 1950s were found atop the parchment but not atop the ink, casting further doubts on the do authenticity.
So while much ado has been made in academic circles about the authenticity of the Vinland Map, its presence at the Mystic Seaport Museum this summer is an opportunity not to be missed. The exhibit explores the contentious history of the map, the many theories that go along with it, and the various tests the map has undergone (including tests Yale University is conducting on the map this year).
See the Vinland Map for yourself so you can judge for yourself if you are gazing upon the first recorded history of Europeans traveling to North America, or a very elaborate forgery.