An exhaustive analysis of the controversial Vinland Map has shown it to be a 20th-century forgery.
“The Vinland Map is a fake,” Raymond Clemens, curator at Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book Library, told Yale News. “There is no reasonable doubt here. This new analysis should put the matter to rest.”
Clemens, along with Yale University conservators Marie-France Lemay and Paula Zyats, and also scientists from Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, performed an extensive analysis of the Vinland Map, which came to light in 1957 when the British Museum, after suspecting a forgery, refused to buy it from a dealer. Yale eventually acquired the parchment map, announcing its existence to the public in 1965. A scholarly book was written about it, and it even managed to grace the front page of the New York Times.
The map, supposedly dating back to the 15th century, was a big deal because it added weight to the claim that Vikings landed in North America before Christopher Columbus. An apparent section of the North American coastline, labeled “Vinlanda Insula,” can be seen just southwest of Greenland. To be fair, this evidence—that Vikings landed in the Americas so long ago—was a big deal at the time but not a huge deal. In the 1960s, archaeological discoveries of Viking settlements at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland had already suggested as much.
That the Vinland Map might be a forgery was suspected from the get-go. Scholars immediately pointed out inconsistencies with other medieval texts, while work done in the 1970s hinted at the presence of modern inks. The purpose of this most recent investigation was to perform the most thorough analysis yet and to examine the parchment from top to bottom with newly available high-tech tools, such as X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF), field emission scanning electron microscopy (FE-SEM), and Raman microscopy. A big bonus was that the team could hold onto the map for as long as the investigation required.
Radiocarbon dating of the parchment placed it to between 1400 and 1460 CE, which matched well with previous efforts to date the Vinland Map. But while the parchment was old, the ink was most certainly not. Medieval scribes used ink containing iron sulphate, powdered gall nuts, and a binder. The ink found in the lines and text on the Vinland Map, however, had barely any iron or sulfur, and instead contained lots of titanium. Previous work had showed titanium at specific points, but the new study showed the extent to which the compound existed across the entire map.
An analysis of dozens of 15th-century central European manuscripts revealed levels of titanium that were far lower, and levels of lead that were much higher, than the levels detected in the Vinland Map. At the same time, inks with titanium pigments were only made available in the 1920s. FE-SEM analysis led the scientists to conclude that the particles on the map were produced in Norway in 1923.
A damning piece of evidence was also found on the back: A Latin inscription with modified instructions on how to bind the map within the Speculum Historiale—a genuine manuscript from the 15th century. For the unknown creator of this map, the attempt at forgery was very much real.
“The altered inscription certainly seems like an attempt to make people believe the map was created at the same time as the Speculum Historiale,” Clemens told Yale News. “It’s powerful evidence that this is a forgery, not an innocent creation by a third party that was co-opted by someone else, although it doesn’t tell us who perpetrated the deception.”
With the map now proven to be a forgery, the question turns to why anyone would bother. Writing in the Smithsonian, David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele, authors of The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe, offered some possible explanations:
A...wave of Viking nostalgia in the early 20th century may have inspired a forger to create the purportedly medieval map. As Lisa Fagin Davis, executive director of the Medieval Academy of America and an expert on manuscript production, says, “The motivation for manuscript forgeries is generally financial or political. In the case of the Vinland Map, both are quite possible.” [...]
As medieval literature expert Dorothy Kim wrote for Time in 2019, 19th-century nationalists looking to create new political and racial myths turned to Viking history as their source material. American poets composed new Viking epics, and, in 1893, a Norwegian captain sailed a replica Viking ship to the Chicago World’s Fair, winning acclaim both in his home country and among Scandinavian immigrants in the United States.
In northern cities, local groups inspired at least in part by anti-Catholic (and, subsequently, anti-Columbus and anti-Italian) sentiment erected Viking statues. By no coincidence, the announcement of Yale’s acquisition of the Vinland Map just so happened to fall the day before Columbus Day in 1965. At times, the myth of Viking America might seem innocuous enough—but the story has always held the potential for exploitation by those seeking to claim the history of North America for white people.
We may never know the true reason or the person responsible for the map, but it’s a relief that scientists were finally able to demonstrate the forgery with some excellent evidence. As Clemens said, these sorts of items tend to “soak up a lot of intellectual air space,” and his team doesn’t “want this to continue to be a controversy.” The researchers will now write a research paper on this work and submit it to a peer-reviewed journal.