On October 11, 1965, just a few hours before Columbus Day,* Yale University announced that it owned a newly discovered map of the world, dating from approximately 1440 AD, that showed an island named Vinland, the Vinilandia insula of the Icelandic sagas, off the coast of North America. The timing was not accidental: if the map was real it proved that the Vikings had landed in North America several centuries before Christopher Columbus.** Indignant Italian Americas denounced the map as a fraud. Scholars at the time debated the map’s authenticity and provenance, with an emphasis on technical aspects of its production and condition. (Think ink composition and the placement of wormholes.)
My friend Karin and I were lucky enough to see the map itself during our visit to Mystic Seaport. Science Myth & Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga is a fascinating look at a subject where public opinion, “comic book history,” and scholarship collide. The small excellent exhibit considers the history of the map as an artifact, the work of the scholars who attempted to authenticate it, the brouhaha that surrounded Yale’s very public and consciously controversial announcement, public reactions to the announcement and the archaeological finds at L’Anse aux Meadows. The most interesting aspect of the exhibit from my perspective was the timeline showing the different scientific tests applied to the document over the last fifty years as new technologies became available, ending with new tests performed by a team at Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage earlier this year. (For those of you with scientific minds, one of the new tests is called “reflectance transformation imaging“.)
The final conclusion? The map is a forgery but the Vikings did reach North America.
Science Myth & Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga will be on display at Mystic Seaport through September 30. Well worth the time if you’re in the general area.
*Which at the time was a minor holiday that had not yet become a focus for discussions about social justice, racism, etc. That would soon change.
**In fact, archaeological discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland had confirmed the presence of Viking settlements in North America the year before. But no one had deliberately rubbed Columbus’s nose in it. Personally, I don’t see that one achievement lessens the other.
***An unplanned piece of history bugg luck.