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THE MAPMAKER’S SECRET IDENTITY
The Vinland Map
Some time in the first half of the 20th century, someone picks up a pen and begins to fake an antique map. The forgery will “prove” that the Norsemen, or Vikings, had sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to America long before Christopher Columbus’s arrival in 1492.
The forger’s pen hovers for a moment above a blank piece of parchment (animal skin prepared as a writing surface). The parchment is no fake. And, although it dates from about 1440 – long after the Norse voyages to “Wineland” or Vinland (the Norse name for North America) around the year 1000 – the forger is not worried, since many mapmakers based their maps on earlier maps. What is important is that his map will seem to predate Columbus.
The forger works carefully, writing in Latin and watering his ink so it will appear faded. He knows that medieval mapmakers used inks mixed from iron compounds that erode and leave a rusty stain, and plans to fake such stains with yellowish dye. He might even add holes to the parchment, to make it look like it was eaten by bookworms.
He draws the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Europe, Iceland, and Greenland. Then he dips his pen again, pauses, and commits himself to making the squiggly line that will turn his map into front-page headlines. Beyond Greenland, he draws a line showing the east coast of North America.
He adds notes to his map. One mentions the discovery of “a new land, extremely fertile and having vines” by the Norseman Leif Eriksson. Another note tells of a journey to Vinland around 1100 by Bishop Eirik Gnupsson of Greenland, who claimed the new land for the Holy Church.
The forger knows a lot about mapmakers of the past. He knows that the first map to use the word “America” was drawn by a German priest named Martin Waldseemüller in 1507. And he knows that any map older than Waldseemüller’s that shows North America will be a cartographic bombshell.
In 1957, book dealers tried to sell a “Vinland Map” to the British Museum in London. The map they offered was bound into an old book about an Italian priest’s travels to Mongolia. The British Museum experts took a look at the book. They thought the Italian priest part looked genuine. But as for the Vinland Map – they smelled a rat and said, “No, thank you.”
So the book dealers decided to unload their Vinland Map in North America. This time, the map convinced people – perhaps because people were ready to be convinced. Scholars had speculated for some time that the Norse had beat Columbus to America because old Icelandic sagas, such as the Greenland Saga and Erik the Red’s Saga, described voyages to Vinland around the year 1000. In the late 1950s, archeologists announced that they had found ruins of the Vinland settlement in northern Newfoundland.
North Americans were ready for some hold-in-your-hand proof of the Norse presence in North America. When the book dealers offered the map for sale in North America, a billionaire named Paul Mellon snapped it up for $1 million and donated it to Yale University.
The map was made public in November 1965, just before Columbus Day. This was bad timing for Italian and Spanish Americans who took pride in Columbus, the Italian who had sailed for Spain. They felt it was rude to steal Columbus’s thunder, and joined the chorus of English scientists who were already crying “Fake!”
In 1966 the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC invited experts from all over the world to stop fighting and calmly discuss the map’s authenticity. The assembled experts began by questioning the book dealer who sold the map to Paul Mellon. He refused to reveal his sources, but this was not unusual. During World War II, the Nazis had stolen art and book collections from people in countries they conquered. These art objects found their way to dealers after the war. Dealers were reluctant to reveal too much about where their treasures came from, in case the original owners reclaimed them. All the Vinland Map conference could get from the book dealer was that he had acquired the map from “a private European collector.”
Then the experts discussed how the strange map was found, bound into an old book. Bookbinding experts ran their fingers over the object and put their noses down to literally sniff it. They decided that the binding that attached the book and the map was suspiciously new, possibly even from the early 20th century. Even more puzzling, the Vinland Map wormholes didn’t match the wormholes in the book’s other pages. How could worms stop dead at one page and resume burrowing in a new direction on the next?
The map’s defenders had answers for both these objections: Maybe the book’s pages fell out and got mixed up. Maybe the book was rebound in the early 20th century.
Everyone at the conference spent a surprising amount of time discussing wormholes — because by the early 20th century, antique maps were starting to be worth real money. For example, in 1901, you could have bought a 1482 edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia for $350. In 1950, the asking price was $5,000. By 1965, the year before the Vinland Map Conference, it was priced at $28,000. As old maps gained value, forgers learned how to make maps look older by faking wormholes, sometimes drilling them with hot wires. One Yale professor said he knew of an English bookseller who kept “a stable of live worms,” to munch up modern maps so they would appear ancient.
Since the experts couldn’t resolve the worm question, they turned to the map’s contents. Many were very suspicious that the Vinland Map showed Greenland as an island. European sailors didn’t know that for sure until the late 19th century. “No problem,” said the map’s defenders. If the map had been drawn by Bishop Eirik of Greenland, he might have made Greenland an island because it was easier to claim islands for the Church than whole continents.
The scientists heard reports on the map’s ink crusts, and whether the ink was flaking the way old crusts of ink should flake. They examined the map under ultraviolet light. But when the conference broke up after two days of intense talk, the Vinland Map mystery remained unsolved.
Years passed. Some people who believed in the map estimated that, if it was genuine, it would be worth about $25 million.
But not everyone believed in it. In 1974, a Chicago scientist analyzing its ink and the yellowish stains detected the presence of round, whitish crystals. He identified them as anatase, a chemical compound not in use until the 1920s. He said the map was a fraud. Other chemists speculated that the anatase might have somehow settled on the map during its handling by modern scientists. They said that the Vinland Map could still be real.
In 1995, American scientists completed a seven-year-long radiocarbon study of the parchment the map was drawn on. They pinned down its age to the year 1434; the parchment, at least, was genuine. Then chemists from the University of London aimed a laser at the map’s ink and its stains, and detected anatase in the actual pigment itself.
Now most experts agree that the parchment is old, but what’s drawn on it is new. So much for the Vinland Map’s $25-million value. (A few diehards still insist the thing could be genuine, though, and Yale University is hanging on to it.)
But who made it and why?
In 2002, an American historian named Kirsten Seaver came forward with a plausible theory about the Vinland Map’s forger. She named a Jesuit priest, Father Josef Fischer.
Many map dealers and scholars knew that name well. In fact, it was Father Fischer who had found Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 book on geography, in which he explained why he thought the New World should be named “America.” As a scholar of early mapmaking, Father Fischer had access to old libraries where he could have found a blank piece of parchment. But if he had the knowledge, the connections, and the skills to commit the forgery, what was his motive?
Kirsten Seaver says that in the late 1930s the old priest was living in retirement in an Austrian monastery. Then the Nazis took it over and decided to shut it down. Furious, Father Fischer decided to forge a map that would embarrass them.
He knew that the Nazis refuted Christianity, and that they had bizarre ideas about the superiority of the illiterate, primitive Norse people, regarding them as the “master race.” Father Fischer gambled that the Nazis would champion his fake map because they hungered for anything that showed what heroes the Norse were. But, in championing the map, the Nazis would be forced to publicize the text on the map – including the “fact” that the New World had been claimed by a Christian, the bishop of Greenland. It was all there on the same document. If they accepted one part, they had to accept the other.
The jury is still out on Seaver’s solution to the mystery of the Vinland Map and who made it. But the fact that it was forged, acquired a huge value, and was taken seriously, reveals some of our feelings about maps.
Maps have authority. They make claims, stake out territory, and confirm history. We decide that they are worth huge amounts of money when they tell us the history that we want to hear.
The people who originally composed the Vinland sagas did not record things by writing them down, and the history most of us learn doesn’t usually give credit to pre-literate peoples for their land claims. We are used to reserving our respect for documents and charts. The sagas, and the Vinland Map, are reminders that maps can come in many forms, and so can mapmakers. The story of the Vinland Map is also proof that the best way to read a map is to learn what you can about the mapmakers, and figure out what they were really trying to show you.
Only then are you ready to find your own way.