The Vinland Map ... And the Debate Goes On

Roundup: Talking About History

Guy Gugliotta, in the Wash Post (Feb. 16, 2004):

When it surfaced in 1957, it was too good to be true: a purported 15th-century world map depicting an island to the far west labeled Vinilandia Insula -- the fabled Vinland -- proof positive, it seemed, that Norse explorers had reached North America long before Columbus.

Thanks -- but no thanks -- the British Museum told the intermediary who offered to sell it to them. It's a phony.

Later that year, however, New Haven, Conn., book dealer Lawrence Witten bought the map and an accompanying medieval manuscript for his wife, paying $3,500. Soon after, he visited Yale University Library to view a seemingly unrelated manuscript fragment purchased by Thomas E. Marston, the library's curator of medieval and renaissance literature. Witten asked to borrow it.

That night, Marston got an excited call from Witten. Marston's manuscript, Witten's manuscript and the map were all written in the same hand, Witten said. Furthermore, worm holes in all three works matched up. They apparently had been bound together, with Marston's manuscript as the meat in the sandwich. The map had to be real.

Thus began the affair of the"Vinland Map," a 13-by-19-inch sheet of parchment depicting not only Vinland, but also remarkably detailed renderings of Iceland and, especially, of Greenland, which -- if the map is real -- is portrayed as an island for the first time in history.

Forty-five years after the map's"discovery," its authenticity remains a subject of fierce debate. In the last two months, the journal Analytical Chemistry has published two articles by front-line combatants in the dispute.

One, by retired Smithsonian research chemist Jacqueline Olin, argued that the presence of anatase, or titanium oxide, in the ink did not mean the ink was modern, as had been alleged in earlier research. She suggested the ink may well have been medieval, made from a simple leaching process from the titanium-rich mineral ilmenite.

The other, by Kenneth Towe, also a retired Smithsonian analyst, reminded readers that the map's anatase had a crystalline structure identical to commercial anatase, a ubiquitous synthetic compound used to enhance colors in paint. Olin's analysis, Towe charged, was"a 'rehash' that is too often biased, misleading or inaccurate."

In May, Danish businessman Jorgen Siemonsen, a well-known debunker of Viking frauds who is agnostic on the map, will sponsor a debate between believers and skeptics as part of a conference on the"Dynamics of Northern Societies."

And coming a month later will be a book-length study titled"Maps, Myths and Men, the Story of the Vinland Map," which will make the case that it is a 1930s forgery by a German Jesuit priest intent on making the Nazis look like fools.

At this juncture, a preponderance of evidence points toward forgery, but the argument is not over, and the stakes are high. If it is authentic, the map is priceless, the oldest known depiction of North America. Yale's Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the map's current resting place, at one point reportedly insured it for $25 million. If it is not authentic, however, it is an amusing curiosity -- worth what Witten paid for it, perhaps, but not much more.

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