Scholars at Yale University have just completed a comprehensive analysis of the Vinland Map , a cartographic representation of the northeastern North American coast that was supposedly created in the 15th century. Using the latest high-tech methods to examine the ink used to draw its markings, the Yale experts have conclusively proven the Vinland Map hoax. It was manufactured by unknown parties in far more recent times, using a type of ink that was first produced in the 1920s.
The Vinland Map was purported to have been made by Viking explorers, who allegedly charted the land masses they encountered on their various trans-Atlantic voyages. The ‘Vinland’ (‘Wine-land’ in English) label refers specifically to a coastal area of North America where wild grapes used to make wine grew in abundance.
From the “Harmsworth’s Atlas of the World” overlaid by this contributor, David Trochos, in green at the same scale and angle with the representation of Greenland from the Vinland Map scan. (David Trochos / Public domain )
The Vinland Map Hoax: Unraveled After Nearly 60 Years!
Ever since the Vinland Map was first introduced to the world in 1965, debate has raged about its authenticity. Supporters pointed to the fact that the map was geographically accurate , and that the parchment it was drawn on had been radiocarbon dated to the 15th century.
Nevertheless, the general consensus among academics was that it was a fake. In support of this thesis, a few limited studies detected apparent anomalies in the map’s ink, which didn’t appear to contain ingredients used in medieval times.
In the new Yale study, analysts were finally able to carefully examine the map’s contents in their entirety, from top to bottom. This gave them a unique opportunity to identify the qualities of the map’s ink, and pin down its date of manufacture more precisely.
While the Vinland Map parchment was proven to be legitimately old, the telltale chemical signature of the ink demonstrated that it had been added to the parchment sometime in the 20th century. The scientific tests the experts performed found that all the ink used on the map contained significant quantities of titanium, a substance that was first added to commercially produced inks in the 1920s.
A small part of folio 223r of Yale Beinecke Library MS 350, a volume of the Speculum Historiale by Vincent of Beauvais, showing an attempt (probably in the mid-20th century) to remove the ownership stamp before the item was offered to Yale. (Yale Beinecke Library Images Database / Public domain )
“The Vinland Map is a Fake,” Declared Yale’s Raymond Clemens
“The Vinland Map is a fake,” declared Raymond Clemens, a curator at Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, in a Yale University press release announcing the results of the study. “There is no reasonable doubt here. This new analysis should put the matter to rest.”
Further evidence of forgery was found on the back of the map. There is an inscription in Latin written there, which seems to provide instructions on how to bind the map into a larger book, a 15th century copy of an encyclopedia known as the Speculum Historiale (‘Historical Mirror’ in English).
Studies performed on the map when it originally surfaced in the 1960s showed that it had once been bound into a copy of this book, which was dated to the 1440s. The inscription was supposed to have been written back then, but the Yale experts found it had also been made with a type of ink that was unavailable in the 15th century.
“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 said. “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.”
There is an ironic aspect of this hoax. While the Vinland Map was faked, what it attempted to demonstrate—that Norse settlers arrived in North America before Columbus —was proven true only three years after the map first appeared in 1957.
In 1960, Norwegian archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad found the remains of an old Norse settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. The site was eventually dated to the year 1,000 AD, which means Norse explorers did indeed make landfall in North America long before Columbus reached the Bahamas in 1492.
Left: King Ludwig IX. (Saint Louis) visits Vinzenz von Beauvais while he is working on the work Speculum Historiale. Right: Jean de Vignay is visited by Queen Johanna (wife of Philip VI), for whom he translates the work into French. (Vincent de Beauvais / Public domain )
Yale Debunks a Forgery It Helped Promote
The Vinland Map was acquired by Yale University in the late 1950s. It was purchased and donated to the university by Paul Mellon, a Yale alumnus and heir to the fortune of the famed Mellon banking family.
Mellon’s purchase and donation also included two manuscripts into which the Vinland Map had been previously bound. These included the aforementioned copy of the Speculum Historiale , a medieval encyclopedia prepared by Dominican friar and historian Vincent de Beauvais, and a copy of the Hystoria Tartorum (‘Tartar Relation’ in English), a manuscript that described the travels of two Polish clerics in Mongol lands in the 13th century. Interestingly, both the Vinland Map and the Hystoria Tartorum had both been bound into the Speculum Historiale initially before they were removed and bound together to form a separate volume.
While he was willing to purchase the map and donate it to Yale, Mellon insisted that a team of experts examine the map closely to determine if it was authentic before announcing its discovery to the public. A team comprised of Yale librarians and curators from the British Museum studied the Vinland Map for several years, and after concluding it might be genuine they revealed its existence to the world on the day before Columbus Day in 1965, in a book entitled The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation .
Despite the apparent confidence in the veracity of the map among Yale scholars, its authenticity was disputed from the beginning. And in fact, various tests performed on the ink over the years seemed to indicate that the map had been produced in contemporary times. But it took a more comprehensive study to finally reveal the full truth, 56 years after the Vinland Map was presented to the public for the first time.
The latest research project was organized by Yale University Library conservators Marie-France Lemay and Paula Zyats. They recruited scientists from Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage to help them complete a definitive examination of the original Vinland Map. The team used X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy (XRF) to analyze the document’s ink, and with this technology they were able to establish once and for all that the Vinland Map was a modern creation.
Raymond Clemens is among those expressing great delight at the achievement of this definitive result.
“Objects like the Vinland Map soak up a lot of intellectual air space,” he explained. “We don’t want this to continue to be a controversy. There are so many fun and fascinating things that we ought to be examining that can actually tell us something about exploration and travel in the medieval world.”
One of the people likely behind the Vinland Map hoax is Spanish-Italian book dealer Enzo Ferrajoli. ( Misterio Resuelto )
Pondering an Old and Murky Historical Whodunit
There is no way to know for sure when the Vinland Map forgery was created, or by whom. But there are three good suspects who may have been involved to one extent or another. These three individuals were all book dealers who dealt with rare and valuable manuscripts, and all played a role in the “discovery” of the map and its accompanying texts.
One of these individuals was Spanish-Italian dealer Enzo Ferrajoli, who first produced the map in 1957 and tried to sell it and the copy of Hystoria Tartorum into which it was bound to the British Museum.
The second person of interest was English dealer Irving Davis, who tried to broker Ferrajoli’s proposed deal with the museum and who ultimately produced the copy of the Speculum Historiale that was purchased by Paul Mellon.
The third suspect was American dealer Laurence Witten II, who like Mellon was a Yale alumnus and who first came up with the idea of purchasing all of these materials and donating them to his alma mater (he claimed he couldn’t afford to make the purchase himself).
It is possible that Ferrajoli and Davis collaborated in the Vinland Map hoax, and duped Witten into becoming involved later on. It’s also possible that Witten was involved in their scam from the beginning and used his contacts with Yale to make sure the Vinland Map would be purchased for a healthy sum. Or perhaps all three men were completely innocent and had been taken advantage of by the real forger.
Since the individuals involved in the original transactions are all now deceased, the perpetrators behind the Vinland Map hoax will likely never be known. But the question of its authenticity has now been answered, and that is the mystery scholars were most interested in solving.
Top image: The Vinland Map hoax has been proven by advance forensic analysis at Yale University, the very institution that bought and championed the map’s authenticity decades ago. Source: Yale University Press / Public domain
By Nathan Falde