Sunday, March 08, 2009

The Vinland map

The book is Maps, Myths, and Men, by Kirsten A. Seaver, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 2004. ISBN 0-8047-4963-9, 480 pages, and this is a brief review of it.

The above book joins The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation, 1 as required reading for anyone interested in the Vinland Map. But unlike that book, in this one the author argues quite forcibly and convincingly that the map is a forgery.2

The Vinland map

The author Kirsten A. Seaver is no stranger to the field of Norse studies having written The Frozen Echo 3 a detailed examination of Norse exploration of North America and the colonization of Greenland. In that book Prof. Seaver advanced a rather controversial theory regarding the end of the Norse colonies in Greenland.4 Which indicates that Prof. Seaver isn’t afraid of controversial ideas simply because they are controversial.

The Vinland map has also been a lightening rod for various theories and has attracted a great deal of heat. Which is an interesting fact given that even if the map is authentic it would change very little in terms of our understanding of history.5 Unfortunately Maps, Myths, and Men, provides little coverage of this aspect of the case. Instead Prof. Seaver examines the known history of the map, its physical features and its cartographic features, and the possible forger.

The chapter on the provenance of the map is called The Black Hole of Provenance,6 and it reveals in perhaps excessive detail the suspicious “discovery” of the map. The section on the inks in the map is a useful summary of the debate unfortunately it is too brief 7 and in my opinion over simplifies the issues. Other issues concerning the inks involve the very rapid fading of the ink on the map, since discovery, as compared to the still virtually unchanged ink of The Tarter Relation it was bound with. 8 A recent test on a sample of the Vinland map revealed it had a coating amounting to 30% of the parchment by weight. Before removal of the coating investigators got a date of c. 1950 after being removed it dated to c. 1440.9

Far better are the extensive sections The Vinland Map as a Cartographic Image, and, The Vinland Map as Narrative.10 Those chapters are the heart and soul of the book and are the ones were Prof. Seaver marshals her evidence concerning the alleged forgery of the map.

For example:

The map lacks the “T” structure of other medieval maps.

The Map includes many features that are not evident on other medieval maps. (As a comparison with other maps shows)

The map violates Norse geographical conceptions.

The map as a number of “firsts” for example the “Magnum mare Tartarorum”, which are anachronistic.

The lack of an “Earthy Paradise”, on the Map.

The Vinland legend on the map which lists Bjarni and Leif as companions in exploration is suspiciously similar to an 18th century source which manifestly contains a confused account of the Vinland explorations.

Map showing Lief Eriksson's jouney to Vinland

The use of Erissonius in a Latin inscription for Erik instead of the more usual Henricus, which was used in both Scandinavia and the rest of Medieval Europe.

This is merely a small sampling of a whole pot-porrui of arguments, reasons, for suspecting the authenticity of the Vinland map, which Prof. Seaver very thoroughly lays out in her book.

The last section of the book, The Vinland Map as a Human Creation,11 outlines Kristen’s theory of and exploration of the career of Father Josef Fischer, a Jesuit Priest, who she alleges was the forger of the Vinland Map. This section is in many ways the weakest part of the book although the hypothesis is interesting it is not, in my opinion convincing, and it must remain for the time period just a possibility.

In fact the recent evidence, mentioned briefly above, giving dates of c. 1950 with, and c. 1440 without the “coating”, indicate the possibility that the Vinland map was faked c. 1950 and after.12 This casts doubt on Prof. Seaver’s identification of the forger. Father Fischer, Prof. Seaver’s candidate for forger died in 1944.

A further annoyance is that occasionally Prof. Seaver’s makes claims that are frankly very dubious. For example the claim is made that the Vinilanda Insula of the Vinland map was modeled by the forger on the province of Nova Scotia. The map provided to illustrate the similarity is very unconvincing. Although in fairness to Prof. Seaver she bases this comparison on a comment made by Father Fischer.13

Map of Viking Settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland

Today it is still possible to read statements to the effect that the map is likely authentic and that the argument that it is not authentic is not convincing.14 This book amply demonstrates that that is quite simply not true. Maps, Myths and Men, amply demonstrates that the onus is on those who assert the authenticity of the Vinland map and that if anyone is putting their heads in the sand it is those who assert the map is clearly authentic.

So is the Vinland map authentic? My opinion is that given the facts and arguments advanced by Prof. Seaver and others the map is probably a clever forgery. However this is only a probability not a certainty on my part. However Prof. Seaver has shown that the case for authenticity is not very good and the case for fakery is better, and I strongly recommend her book to anyone interested in this issue.

Reconstruction of Viking Settlement at L'Anse Aux Meadows

1. The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation. 2nd Edition, Ed. R. A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, George D. Painter, Yale University Press, New Haven Conn. 1995.

2. A very short summary of Prof. Seaver’s position regarding the Vinland map is The Chart before the Norse, Kirsten A. Seaver, The Globe and Mail, November 29, 2003, Toronto, A27.

3.Seaver, Kirsten A., The Frozen Echo, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1996.

4. Professor Seaver’s theory (of an attempt to colonize part of North America by the Greenland Norse in the early 16th century) is, in my opinion, completely speculative, wild speculation at that, and relies on next to zero evidence and therefore cannot be taken seriously.

5. See McGhee, Robert, Epilogue: Was their Continuity from the Norse to Post-Medieval Explorations of the New World, in Barrett, James H., Contact, Continuity and Collapse, Ed. James H. Barrett, Brepols Publishers, Turnhout Belgium, 2003, pp. 245-246.

6. Maps, Myths, and Men, pp. 87-107.

7. IBID. pp. 186-204.

8. See McNaughton, Douglas, A World in Transition (Scientific Studies of the Vinland Map), in Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, Ed. Fitzhugh, William W.,Ward, Elizabeth I., Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 2000, p. 269.

9. See The Viking Deception, Nova, PBS Airdate: February 8, 2005, Transcript at Here. (Accessed March 8, 2009).

10. Maps, Myths and Men, pp. 205-255, and pp. 256-296. See also McNaughton, pp. 257-269, for more about Norse Cartography.

11. Maps, Myths, and Men, pp. 297-373.

12. See The Viking Deception.

13. Maps, Myths, and Men, pp. 317-319., map is on p. 318.

14. See McGhee, pp. 244-245.

Pierre Cloutier

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