The history of the Vinland Map is a story of mystery, controversy and intrigue, involving large sums of money. (Currently, the Map is insured for $25M.) After almost fifty years, articles continue to be published and the Map appears regularly in the media.
The Vinland Map
For the public, the story began in 1965. With no prior warning, Yale announced to the world its possession of a newly-discovered map, the Vinland Map. It was a map of the world, dated to AD 1440, showing an island, Vinland, identified as part of the NE American coastline. As such, it was the earliest map to show America. As such, it proved that the Vikings, not Columbus, were the first to discover America. The map was an overnight sensation. It changed people's view of world history and they wanted to believe that it was genuine.
For some time, scholars had been looking for evidence like the Vinland Map. Increasingly, they were becoming convinced that the Vikings had discovered America. But there was no archeological evidence to prove it. Suddenly the Vinland Map appeared, seemingly providing that evidence. And then shortly thereafter, archaeological evidence appeared. For years archeologists had been searching for evidence of a Viking landfall in North America and, in 1965, they found one, at the tip of Newfoundland. That archaeological discovery
A detail from the Vinland Map, showing Vinland and Greenland occurred just as the Vinland Map was being shown to the public for the first time. Once the Viking settlement had been discovered, no longer was the Vinland Map needed as evidence to prove a Norse presence. Rather, the discovery of the Viking landfall in 1965 seemed to legitimize the idea that the Vinland Map was genuine.
Few people had known of the Map's existence before 1965. Paul Mellon, a Yale alumnus and benefactor, had bought it for $1M in 1959, promising to give it to Yale if Yale could first authenticate it. So, for seven years, three scholars from the British Museum and the Yale Library - experts in maps and manuscripts - worked to authenticate the Map, without divulging its existence to scholars or to the outside world.. The three scholars were convinced that the Map was genuine and they were committed to proving it so. In 1965, as soon as the authentication was completed and published, the Map's existence was announced to the world... and Yale became the owner of the Map. . Today, in 2006, fundamental questions about the Map remain unanswered:
A sailing ship of the sort that brought the Vikings to America
(i). If it is truly a 15th century map, where has it been for the past 500 years?
Where did the Map come from? It first appears in 1957 in the possession of a shady Italian book dealer Enzo Ferrajoli, subsequently put in prison for stealing rare books from ancient libraries. In 1957, Ferrajoli brought the Map to the British Museum to be authenticated. (At that time, it was bound, in a modern binding, to an antique volume dating to the 1440s, the Tartar Relation TR.) Ferrajoli's request for authentication was denied and, later, he sold the Map to Laurence Witten, a New Haven book dealer, for $3,500. Another antique volume, also dating to the 1440s, the Speculum Historiale SH, then mysteriously appeared, as an item in the rare book trade, also brokered by Ferrajoli. The SH then passed into Witten's possession; whereupon Witten noticed that the wormholes on the SH, the TR and the Map all matched. Originally all three could have been bound together. This seemed to date the Map to the 1440s, thereby authenticating it. This evidence provided the rationale for Mellon's $1M purchase.
The Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows, at the northern tip of Newfoundland. The archaeological dig and reconstructed houses lie to the left of the building in the right middle distance.
So where had the Map come from? Nothing more can be learned from the principals, Ferrajoli, Witten, etc., for they are all dead. Ferrajoli had claimed that he acquired the Map from another, unnamed book dealer but that adds nothing. Ferrajoli was convicted of stealing books from the famous Library at Saragossa, Spain; and the Map and the two volumes could have been part of his heist. We have no means of knowing.
(ii). If genuine, how could the Map have been drawn in 1440 AD?
How could Vinland have been mapped in such detail on the Vinland Map? Watermarks suggest that the Map was created in Basel in AD 1440. The Viking settlement on Vinland was established and abandoned around AD 1000. How did the cartographic information survive 450 years to be drawn on the Map in Basel? It would have had to have been written down in the early Norse Sagas [AD 1100 - 1200]. (No record of such a Saga survives.) In the intervening 100-200 years, between the experience in Vinland and the recording in a saga, all knowledge would have had to have been handed down by word of mouth. Other means would not have been possible. No Norse maps have survived: the Norse never made maps: there is no word in Old Norse for map. With what accuracy could detailed geography have been encoded in speech and transmitted from generation to generation? That is a question we can answer.
The Viking voyages to Britain, Iceland, Greenland and North America, in the period AD 800 - 1000, as reconstructed from the Norse sagas
The routes of the Viking voyages have been inferred from a close reading of the surviving Sagas, as illustrated here. (Landmarks can be recognized and distances gauged from the number of days at sea.) When the Vikings sailed to America, they would, as shown, travel up the West Coast of Greenland, cross the Davis Strait (only 200 miles wide at the closest point) and sail down the East Coast of Baffin Island and Labrador. We know from the Sagas that, sailing down the East Coast of Labrador, the Vikings identified three distinctly different regions of coastline which they named Helluland (Slab Land), Markland (Forest Land) and Vinland (Vine land).
Now in 1579, Sigurdur Stefansson did use the information, recorded in the Sagas, to map, as shown, the region including England, Ireland and the North Atlantic The end result is crude, schematic, hypothetical and bears no relationship to the true geography of the region. This map reveals the utter implausibility of generating the Vinland Map using data recorded by the Vikings some 450 years earlier. The VM cannot be genuine because there was no means of creating it in AD 1440.
A c. 1590 map of Britain, Norway, Greenland and North America, reconstructed by Sijurdur Stefansson from the Norse sagas
(iii). If it was forged, who could have forged a work of such complexity?
No forger need be identified in order to demonstrate that the VM is a fake. That said, there is great interest to know who did it, why, how and when. So far, only one possible candidate has been proposed, Father Josef Fischer (1858-1944). Kirsten Seaver discusses the case for Fischer in her book Maps, Myths and Men, the most penetrating analysis, to date, of the Vinland Map. It is a matter of some relief to be able to identify someone who could have forged the Map. Little evidence is available to identify the forger. In some ways Father Fischer seems plausible: in others he does not. Evidence from carbon-14 dating shows that the VM underwent a massive intervention no earlier than 1953: Father Fischer died in 1944.
Father Josef Fischer (1858-1944) identified by Kirsten Seaver as a possible forger of the Vinland Map
(iv). If it was forged, why was it forged?
Assigning motives may not be straightforward. In faking paintings by Vermeer, van Meegeren earned many millions and fooled the critics who, earlier, had rejected his own paintings. Revenge and greed could not have motivated Father Fischer. Instead Seaver suggests it was a prank.
(v). Contributing factors
Information on the Vinland Map has not always been shared. Secrecy has induced resentment; and resentment has sharpened partisan attitudes. Yale's 7-year closed authentication was especially counterproductive. Just three experts participated and they lacked expertise in essential areas, such as handwriting analysis, Old Norse History and Culture and materials science. The need for secrecy disallowed the use of outside experts. Wrong conclusions were drawn. The published authentication was flawed. Yale has yet to acknowledge that its handwriting analysis was incorrect. This has happened not from an unwillingness to admit mistakes but rather from a lack of oversight, the lack of anyone with the responsibility to keep the record straight.
Han van Meegeren painting one of the paintings that he promoted as the work of Vermeer
(vi). A provenance?
Bertram Schofield, Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum, was the first person to examine the Vinland Map, in June 1957, and he was the first to deny its authenticity - because it lacked a proper provenance. It is a curatorial axiom that no artifact can be authenticated without a proper provenance. Over the subsequent 50 years, no historical evidence has emerged to establish a provenance for the Vinland Map that could substantiate its authenticity.
The Vinland Map remains an enigma. Even if proved to be genuine or fake, questions as to its origin, will still remain unanswered and unanswerable.