Is the Vinland Map a Fake?
Two Conflicting Scientific Papers Reopen Ongoing Debate
Listen to David Kestenbaum's report.
August 5, 2002 -- Sitting in Yale University's Beinecke Library is a 15th century map faded to the point of near invisibility. It is the oldest known map depicting North America -- unless it is a fake.
Scientists and historians have argued over the authenticity of the famous Vinland Map for a third of a century. The map shows Europe, and a little to the left an area called "Vinland" -- the name Norse explorer Leif Eriksson gave to a part of North America he supposedly stumbled upon 1000 years ago.
Now two new scientific papers are reopening old wounds about the famous Vinland Map. NPR's David Kestenbaum reports for Morning Edition.
The last time doubters and believers confronted each other was in 1996. They gathered at Yale's Beinecke Library expecting to learn about carbon dating measurements that would reveal the age of the parchment the map was drawn on.
Instead, the two entrenched sides began arguing without hope of agreement. Tom Cahill, a physicist at the University of California, took over the meeting. He showed 135 slides of the Vinland Map. "[I] had them all totally zoned out" Cahill said. "The rest of the meeting got much better."
But the debate continues today. One paper, published in the journal Radiocarbon, uses Carbon-14 dating to analyze the parchment and determine it was made around 1434 A.D. -- plus or minus 11 years. Another paper, published in the journal Analytical Chemistry, analyzes the chemicals used in the ink and concludes that while the parchment may be old the ink appears modern.
Chemist Robin Clark of University College London worked on the newest paper that claims the map is a fake. He and his students found titanium dioxide, a chemical that appears in commercial paints only after 1920. Similar measurements and arguments have been used before, but Cahill argues that the presence of titanium dioxide is not unusual when compared to other documents of the same period.
A few years ago, The New York Times reported that insurers valued the Vinland Map at $25 million. But until science gives a clearer answer, "even a rich collector would risk ridicule for writing so large a check," one map dealer says.
Read the PBS interview with with Dr. Wilcomb Washburn, director of American Studies at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, on the debate over the authenticity of the Vinland Map.
Visit the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History Web site on the Viking's North Atlantic saga.
Read about the history of the Norse exploration of "Vinland".
read about how Carbon-14 dating is used to analyze ancient documents.