In 1965, the day before Columbus Day, Yale announced the existence of a spectacular rediscovered historic document: the Vinland Map. Dated to 1440 A.D., the purportedly Norse map depicted “Vinland,” the land discovered by Leif Ericson around 1000 and known today as Newfoundland. The document seemingly provided further evidence that the Norse had traveled to the New World prior to Christopher Columbus’ famed expedition in 1492.
The announcement was picked up by newspapers across the globe and outraged Italian Americans in New Haven and elsewhere who felt a strong cultural connection to Columbus.
There was just one problem with the story. The map was almost certainly a fake.
The stranger-than-fiction tale of this controversial map is told as part of a larger exhibition on Vikings currently on display at Mystic Seaport Museum. Science, Myth, and Mystery: The Vinland Map Saga runs through Sept. 30 at the museum and features the first public display of the map in the U.S. in more than 50 years.
It’s a tale of shady antiquarian book dealers operating in the post-war black market, of scholars and scientists working as historical sleuths, of interpretations of history, and, finally, of wormholes.
The map first appeared in 1957 in Europe in the possession of an Italian book dealer named Enzo Ferrajoli de Ry, who would later be imprisoned for stealing rare books from libraries. It made its way to Connecticut when Ferrajoli sold the map to a New Haven antiquarian book dealer named Laurence Witten. Witten offered to sell it to his alma mater, Yale University, and a donor agreed to pay several hundred thousand dollars for it and donate it to Yale if it could be authenticated.
Researchers at Yale were initially wary of the document because it had an unknown provenance. “You have something appearing almost out of the ether,” says Nicholas R. Bell, senior vice president for curatorial affairs at Mystic Seaport Museum. But, Bell adds, the mystery surrounding its origins alone didn’t prove it was a fake. Because of World War II, “There was a lot of stuff on the market that had no provenance. You just didn’t necessarily know where it came from because there was so much movement of material over the war years and after.”
The map arrived in New Haven bound in a medieval text dating to the 1440s called The Tartar Relation, but holes made by bookworms in the two manuscripts did not match, suggesting they hadn’t been stored together. This problem seemed to be solved when, around the same time, apparently by coincidence, a separate medieval text also dating to the 1440s called the Speculum Historiale was purchased by those at Yale. When researchers compared the three documents they found the wormholes matched up when all three manuscripts were examined together. This suggested that the Vinland Map had originally been bound in the Speculum. These wormholes helped researchers at Yale conclude the map was likely genuine.
After the map’s existence was publicly announced in 1965, other experts expressed their doubts. Some of the spellings on the map were possibly anachronistic, including a Latin spelling of Leif Ericson’s name that wouldn’t have been common until the 17th century.
In the early 1970s the ink used for the map was analyzed and was found to contain a chemical not manufactured until the 1920s. Though the parchment the map was painted on has been dated to the 1400s, the ink analysis indicated the Vinland Map was an elaborate hoax, with great care being taken to make it look authentic, and ink designed to appear medieval.
A small minority of researchers doubt the ink findings and still insist the map is genuine, but the majority of experts agree it is a fake. Though Yale has never held an official position on the map’s authenticity, many at the university believe it is a hoax, including Raymond Clemens, curator of early books and manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which is loaning the map to the seaport for the exhibit.
Prior to the Mystic Seaport exhibit, the map was taken to a Yale lab where it was subjected to more advanced analysis than ever before. The hope is that researchers will be able to learn more about the materials used in its creation.
However, the new analysis is not designed to shed light on the identity or motivation of the forger, which remain part of the mystery surrounding the map. How Ferrajoli obtained the map has never been clear, though it is unlikely the Italian book dealer was the forger himself.
“We can’t say for sure, but I would be surprised if he had those type of skills,” Bell says. “The one thing that we’re able to really say with some reasonable confidence is that whoever did this brought an immense education to the table in order to pull these resources together in a way that gave an appearance of authenticity, and it’s probably not a shady book dealer.”
Even though the Vinland Map is likely a forgery, the debate surrounding it has made it a valuable historic document unto itself. Bell says that in the exhibit they try to convey this story, and cut through the tangled web of its history.
“The Vinland Map, albeit an entirely secular artifact, has people who believe in it almost as an article of faith,” he says. “It has this life beyond the evidence itself, and it has this value to some people beyond the evidence itself.”
For more information on Mystic Seaport Museum’s Vinland Map exhibition, go to mysticseaport.org or call 860-572-0711.