NARRATOR: In 1492, Columbus discovered America—and for nearly 500 years, there could be no fact more certain. Columbus and his discovery were inscribed in textbooks, recited by school children and celebrated by nations. Then, in the 1960s, history changed forever when we learned that America was not discovered by Columbus; America was discovered by the Vikings.
The proof? A wrinkled piece of parchment called the Vinland Map, claimed by experts to be the first to depict America, and it dates to 1440, half a century before Columbus' famous voyage. But is the Vinland Map real?
GARMAN HARBOTTLE (Brookhaven National Laboratory): If it's a fake, it was done by a master of forgery.
THOMAS CAHILL (University of California, Davis): It's too complicated. It's too beautiful. I think it's real.
NARRATOR: From the moment it surfaced, scientists have subjected the map to an exhaustive series of forensic tests, but even they are divided over its authenticity.
KATHERINE BROWN (University College London): If it is genuine, it's a fascinating historical document. If it's not genuine, it's the biggest con trick that's been pulled on cartographical society in a very, very long time.
NARRATOR: At stake: millions of dollars, the careers of esteemed scholars and scientists, and the reputation of one of America's most revered institutions.
ROBIN CLARK (University College London): We can see no option but the fact that this must be a forgery, a modern twentieth century forgery.
NARRATOR: From ancient libraries in Nazi occupied Austria to space age labs in California, the race is on for the truth. Is the Vinland Map fake or real? Can science provide the answer? Up next on NOVA, The Viking Deception.
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NARRATOR: Here at the showpiece Beinecke Library, Yale keeps the Vinland Map safe for future study. Once, it had been proclaimed the map that changed history, challenging the gospel that Columbus discovered America and revealing the Vikings as the first Europeans to visit the New World. But today, the map is only accessible to select scholars who are investigating it, not for its historical value, but rather, to determine its authenticity.
ALICE PROCHASKA (Yale University Librarian): We don't take a position on the Vinland Map. I believe very strongly that we are here to make material available for scholars to use. As far as it's being real or fake is concerned, that is for the scholars who study it to determine.
NARRATOR: If they determine it's real, it's the most valuable map in the world; if it's fake, it's a worthless piece of parchment.
London, the year 1957: two book dealers arrive at the British Museum. One is J.I. Davis, an Englishman, the other, an Italian named Enzo Ferrajoli. Ferrajoli and Davis are hoping the museum experts will authenticate an intriguing volume they are offering for sale. The bulk of the book is a medieval manuscript called the Tartar Relation.
The Tartar Relation is an account of a 13th century Papal mission to gather intelligence on the court of the Mongol rulers with their great military capability. The manuscript Ferrajoli and Davis are offering was transcribed by monks in the 15th century and bound together with a world map that appears to illustrate the text. To the east of Europe, the map shows lands conquered by the Mongols, the Himalayas, and even the island of Japan. But to the west of Europe, it reveals Iceland, Greenland, and a new world, one that until then had never been seen on a map, a distant island in the North Atlantic labeled "Vinlanda," where America lies.
KIRSTEN SEAVER (Author, Maps, Myths and Men): Here it was in black and white. And it showed America in relation to recognizable parts of the world such as Africa and Asia and the Scandinavian countries, Great Britain—no question where it was.
NARRATOR: Was this map evidence that the Vikings set foot on America before Columbus? At the time, the only hint this could be true were two Norse chronicles called the Vinland Sagas.
KIRSTEN SEAVER: The word saga means telling oral tales. And they were stories, oral histories that were partly passed down for the edification of the next generation. Some of them were for entertainment more than anything.
NARRATOR: The Vikings were the greatest explorers of the Middle Ages. Their sturdy ships and seafaring skills took them far from their Scandinavian homelands and across harsh North Atlantic Seas. By 870 they had reached Iceland; a century later they colonized Greenland. And now this map not only depicts Vinland where America is, it also includes a short inscription above Vinland describing its discovery by the Vikings. Suddenly the Vinland Map cast doubt on 500 years of textbook history.
GARMAN HARBOTTLE: I was taught that Columbus discovered the New World; so was every other child the world across. And so this, then, was revolutionary in that sense.
NARRATOR: In 1957, when book dealers Ferrajoli and Davis brought the map to the British Museum, it was the first serious evidence besides the sagas that the Vikings had discovered America. The Vinland Map looked so good, two of the museum's experts were convinced it was genuine. But the head of the Manuscript Department, Bertram Schofield, had doubts. He was troubled that Ferrajoli would not reveal anything about the map's previous history.
In fact, Ferrajoli's charm did mask a darker past. He was a fascist who, during the Spanish Civil War, had fought with General Franco's troops. Some claim he had a reputation for shady deals.
ELOY FERNÀNDEZ CLEMENTE (University of Saragossa): He knew very well who he could buy just with little gifts—invitations to lunch, good cigars, good spirits and wines. In other words, he knew perfectly what everybody's price was in order to win their trust.
NARRATOR: Bertram Schofield refused to give the British Museum's stamp of approval to the Vinland Map. Without authentication, Ferrajoli and Davis would not be able to ask a high price. They decided to try another strategy.
Geneva was one of the hubs of the European rare book trade. One Swiss dealer, the firm of Nicolas Rauch, was holding a series of auctions of books and manuscripts relating to the discovery of America. But without proof that it was genuine, Rauch would not sell the Vinland Map. He did, however, introduce Ferrajoli to a young American dealer, Laurence Witten.
KENNETH NEBENZAHL (Rare book dealer): He was extremely knowledgeable. He was a linguist, familiar with most Western European languages. He was a Latinist. And his catalogue descriptions were erudite. He was a very knowledgeable dealer.
NARRATOR: Away from the close scrutiny of the sales room, Ferrajoli offered Witten the Vinland Map. Despite the map's lack of a proper pedigree, Witten, as he later wrote in a publication for Yale, was captivated.
VOICE OVER READING FROM LAURENCE WITTEN RECOLLECTION Whatever the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation may ultimately prove to be, I fell under their spell in 1957.
NARRATOR: Witten paid Ferrajoli $3,500 for the Vinland Map volume. In 1957, that was big money, but if he could prove that the Vinland Map was drawn before Columbus arrived in America in 1492, he stood to make a fortune.
At his home near Yale, where he had been a graduate student, Witten turned detective. He started by trying to date the manuscript with which the map was bound, the Tartar Relation. The Tartar Relation was mainly written on paper, and Witten discovered faint watermarks of an ox's head. By finding the watermark in a reference book, he could show that the paper had been made in 1441. This indicated that the Tartar Relation was an authentic medieval manuscript, but the map was drawn on parchment, animal skin, and had no identifying watermark. What was its date?
Witten's strategy was to prove that the Vinland Map had always been bound with the Tartar Relation, which scholars generally agree is authentic. While examining them he found an important clue, wormholes. If he could show that the holes eaten by bookworms lined up from one document to the next, it would prove the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation had always been bound together and had to be connected in time. But try as he might, Witten could not make the wormholes line up. Witten had come to a dead end.
A year later, his fortunes would be transformed by a remarkable coincidence. A friend from Yale's Stirling Library brought Witten part of a well-known medieval history by a Dominican Friar named Vincent of Beauvais. It was called the Speculum Historiale or Mirror of History.
That night, after dinner, he sat down with the manuscript and compared it to the Tartar Relation and the Vinland Map. Immediately, he was struck by an amazing coincidence.
VOICE OVER READING FROM LAURENCE WITTEN RECOLLECTION My adrenaline began to flow as it dawned on me that the wormholes through the Vinland Map exactly matched those at the front of Vincent de Beauvais's Speculum, while the ones in the Tartar Relation just as perfectly matched those at the end of the same volume. As far as I was concerned, the Vinland Map was authenticated then and there, beyond any reasonable shadow of doubt.
NARRATOR: It now appeared that the Vinland Map had once been part of a medieval volume containing two authentic ancient documents. The map was at the front of the volume, next came the Speculum Historiale, and finally, the Tartar Relation. Bookworms had eaten through the manuscripts, leaving the wormholes as evidence linking the map with the Speculum and the Speculum with the Tartar Relation. Witten was convinced. The Vinland Map was real.
Witten offered it for sale to Yale University. Alexander Vietor, the curator of the map collection, turned to one of the university's wealthiest and most generous alumni for help. Billionaire Paul Mellon was intrigued by the idea that one map could radically rewrite history. The exact price he paid has never been revealed, but in return for what has been estimated as hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to Alexander Vietor's wife Anna, Mellon set one crucial condition, secrecy.
ANNA GLEN VIETOR (Alexander Vietor's Wife): Well, he wanted it to burst on the world, and everybody would be thrilled, and this would change all history. So my husband came back and said, "You've got to keep it a secret and not tell anybody about it, because I'll be in great trouble with Mellon."
NARRATOR: Yale selected three scholars to quietly try to authenticate the map. While they were working, a remarkable find lent further support to the Vinland Map's message that the Vikings were the first Europeans to reach America.
Since 1960, Norwegians Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad had been searching the Canadian coast for evidence of a Viking presence. At the fishing village of L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, they were taken to the remains of what locals described as an Indian camp. The Ingstads began excavating.
Over the following years, they uncovered the remains of what appeared to be typical 11th century Viking buildings. And the artifacts inside them left no room for doubt. The only people who produced bronze ringed pins and iron nails that looked like these were the Vikings.
The Ingstad's announcement provided the archaeological proof that the Vikings had beaten Columbus to America.
By 1965, Yale was prepared to reveal its closely guarded secret to the world. The three scholars had completed a lavish book in preparation for the Vinland Map's unveiling. The only decision that remained was the exact date for the launch. Yale's benefactor, Paul Mellon, was consulted.
ANNA GLEN VIETOR: Everybody in those days had a featherweight diary, and Mellon got his out. "I'm going to be shooting, I'm going to be fishing, I'm going to be...," and so forth and so on. And suddenly, on October 11th, he was going to be at a meeting up near New Haven, and so he said that would be the perfect time.
NARRATOR: Mellon's choice of date could not have been more provocative. October 11th was the eve of Columbus Day, the holiday commemorating Columbus' discovery of America.
The launch party was a lavish affair. Its centerpiece was an ice sculpture of a Viking longboat created by Yale's chefs. As ambassadors mingled with academics, Alexander Vietor playfully donned a helmet sent as a gift by the King of Norway. The Vinland Map was toasted as a crowning achievement for Yale and its billionaire benefactor.
But from the press and certain sectors of the public, news of the map was greeted with hostility.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN (Brandeis University): The public was firmly convinced that Columbus had discovered America, because that's what they'd learned in school. And suddenly they were told that it was not Columbus who discovered America but the Vikings. And particularly, the Italian Americans were very upset that Columbus had been removed from center stage.
JOHN LA CORTE (President Italian American Historical Society, Newsreel Footage) The twenty one million Americans will resent this great insult to Columbus, especially released on a day that we're honoring him.
NARRATOR: Beyond bruised pride and public outrage, there were serious concerns about the secrecy surrounding the map prior to its unveiling.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN: Authenticating the map is a very big task. It requires one to have a lot of knowledge about orthography, paleography, material science, history, and in particular, Old Norse history. And it was really ridiculous to think that any three people could pass a professional judgment on all these aspects.
NARRATOR: A year after the map's formal unveiling, Yale, with the Smithsonian Institution, held a conference, inviting a wider range of specialists to examine the map. These scholars pointed out strange anomalies and raised serious questions. Why was the Viking's own Scandinavian homeland drawn so crudely? Why was Greenland accurately portrayed as an island even though it was not circumnavigated until the late nineteenth century? And perhaps the most damaging piece of evidence to challenge the Map's authenticity? The fact that Vikings had never been known to make maps—their navigation skills relied instead on their knowledge of the environment.
SIR ROBIN KNOX-JOHNSTON (National Maritime Museum, UK): They'd have been far more aware of what was going on around them. If it suddenly clouded over and you couldn't navigate, what direction was the wave coming in? Well, just keep the wave the same aspect as the boat and we know we're going to stay on course. Whereas we link up to a satellite to know where we are, they would use all these natural things around them to say "Look, I'm about here."
KIRSTEN SEAVER: They had their sailing knowledge in their heads and they conceived of their world...not in terms of drawing diagrams that other people could see. There's literally not a single map that shows any kind of cartographical drawings from the Norse in the Middle Ages.
NARRATOR: As the chorus of doubt around the map's legitimacy grew, Yale decided that scientific tests might help prove the Vinland Map real. At New Years, 1967, the map, the Speculum and the Tartar Relation were flown to London, back to the British Museum.
There, all three manuscripts were examined under ultraviolet light. The test revealed that inks from the Tartar Relation and Speculum Historiale absorbed the ultraviolet light and, therefore, appeared deep black, but the lines on the Vinland Map did not appear black. Instead, they fluoresced. Scientists at the British Museum reported that the ink on the Vinland Map was not the same as the ink used in the other two authenticated manuscripts, or, for that matter, any other documents of the period. So what was it?
Yale had the map flown back to the U.S., and contacted the Chicago firm of McCrone Associates. Dr. Walter McCrone was famous for pioneering the use of the microscope for forensic analysis. He achieved international fame for investigating the mysteries surrounding the deaths of Napoleon and Beethoven, and for uncovering evidence that the Shroud of Turin, with its image of Jesus, was a fake.
Now McCrone and his colleague Anna Teetsov turned their investigative skills on the Vinland Map. Under low magnification, they found that the outlines on the map seemed to consist not of a single line, but two, one on top of the other.
ANNA TEETSOV (McCrone Associates): There was a yellow line, and wandering back and forth, was a black line or little pieces of black pigment. The yellow line was very distinct while the black line was flaking off.
NARRATOR: McCrone asked Teetsov to lift tiny samples of the yellow line for analysis. With the polarized light microscope Teetsov can control the angle of the light passing through the substance, and identify it by the special way it refracts and absorbs that light. On the Vinland Map, when the light was shone onto the map's surface, the yellow ink particles appeared white. But when the light was shone through the map, the yellow ink appeared dark. These unique refractive qualities were a vital clue to the ink's ingredients.
ANNA TEETSOV: It was kind of a unique material. It would have to be something like anatase.
NARRATOR: Anatase is a form of titanium dioxide that occurs naturally as a mineral ore. When refined, its reflective properties make it ideal as an ingredient for paints and pigments.
Anna Teetsov scraped off a particle from the yellow line of the map and examined it under much greater magnification. She used a Transmission Electron Microscope, which gives a very precise image of particle size and shape. Jagged irregular particles of widely varying size, like these, signify natural anatase ground by hand from mineral ore.
But the samples McCrone took from the Vinland Map were a different shape. The yellow particles were nearly all the same size and had rounded edges. This indicated that the anatase was synthetic, and synthetic anatase was not widely produced until 1917.
ANNA TEETSOV: We knew from then on that we weren't dealing with an ancient map, it was a modern ink.
NARRATOR: McCrone and Teetsov sent their report to Yale: if the ink was modern then the Vinland Map was likely a forgery. The careers of eminent scholars were threatened. The relationship between Yale and its generous benefactor was strained. The reputation of one of the world's most illustrious institutions was tarnished. And the most valuable map in the world was in danger of becoming a valueless fake.
Yale sought a second opinion.
Since the late 1970s, a team at the University of California at Davis, headed by physicist Thomas Cahill, had been using nuclear technology to identify airborne pollutants. He had successfully used the same technology to analyze a Gutenberg Bible. Now, on the recommendation of the Smithsonian and the FBI, Yale hired Cahill to see if his technique could shed light on the Vinland Map.
Shielded inside a 10-foot concrete shell is the cyclotron. It uses an immensely powerful magnet to accelerate protons to enormous speeds. The protons are then focused in a beam down a steel tube. When the beam strikes an object it generates a unique signature that measures the amount of each element that is present.
THOMAS CAHILL: The sensitivity is very great. In principal, we can see down to thousandths of a millionth of a gram of material.
NARRATOR: Over two days in 1985, Cahill's team took over 100 readings from the whole of the Vinland Map.
THOMAS CAHILL: Location 28. Ink, Vinlandia. Start.
NARRATOR: First, they analyzed sections containing both ink lines and parchment.
THOMAS CAHILL: Beam on.
NARRATOR: Then they measured blank parchment.
THOMAS CAHILL: Beam off.
In the case of the Vinland Map, we have parchment and very small amounts of ink on it. One has to know what the parchment looks like compositionally to be able to subtract the ink from it. So we always went ahead and measured the parchment right next to the ink line. Take the two measurements, subtract out the parchment, what's left over is the ink.
NARRATOR: Cahill could then produce a list of elements in the map's ink. Walter McCrone had reported large concentrations of titanium, or anatase, but Cahill was astonished to find hardly any.
THOMAS CAHILL: Well the big surprise was, when we first did the analysis of the ink, that we saw almost no titanium. We had been expecting tons of titanium. It wasn't there. The results, in fact, contradicted the McCrone results directly.
NARRATOR: Cahill argued that if anatase, a form of titanium dioxide, were present in the ink, he should have seen much more titanium in his results. He suggested that the particles that McCrone had analyzed may have been contaminated, perhaps by flakes of modern paint that had fallen from the ceiling.
THOMAS CAHILL: A small amount of material like that on the map could have been picked up as a crystal and then analyzed and looked like modern paint. It might have been modern paint.
NARRATOR: But Anna Teetsov of McCrone Associates is adamant that her samples came directly from the yellow lines on the map.
ANNA TEETSOV: A lot of the particles were still attached to tiny little fragments of parchment. They were directly glued onto the parchment.
THOMAS CAHILL: So you have two techniques, both highly credible, which seemed to be in direct contradiction.
NARRATOR: The question remained, what was the yellowish pigment in the ink that McCrone and Anna Teetsov had identified? Is it what McCrone suspected, anatase in its modern synthetic form, which could only mean the Vinland Map is a forgery? Or are there other secrets hidden within the ink?
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER (Calligrapher): The ink is the correct brown for a centuries old map, and exactly how the writer achieved that seems to be a little bit of a puzzle.
NARRATOR: Brody Neuenschwander is an art historian and calligrapher who can write in the style of ancient scribes. He's putting his skills to work to discover how a medieval manuscript could be faked.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: I originally started with an interest in medieval manuscripts and was very interested in learning to imitate medieval styles of writing. It's also the case that you can't really write a proper medieval letter if you don't understand the inks that they used.
NARRATOR: In the Middle Ages, the most commonly used ink was called iron gall. Iron gall ink was cheap and easy to make. Galls are growths caused by the larvae of insects in oak trees. These were crushed to a fine powder and boiled in water to make a solution that looked like tea. Gum arabic, a kind of glue, was mixed with ferrous sulfate, a mineral containing iron.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: The thing that makes ink...ink is the reaction between the iron in the ferrous sulfate and the tannin from the oak tree. These produce a rusting reaction on the page. The tannin and the iron together are oxidizing on the page and actually burning the letter into the surface.
NARRATOR: In fact, the English word ink comes from the Greek, enkaiein, which means to burn in. This burning process, over time, causes the iron gall ink to change color.
BRODY NEUENSCHWANDER: The strokes of the pen will leave a grayish mark, and within an hour or two that will blacken, and within the next year or two it will blacken completely. But, within the next century or two, it will start to go brown.
NARRATOR: Many medieval manuscripts have been stained brown by iron gall corrosion, including the Tartar Relation and the Speculum Historiale, the manuscripts that had been bound with the Vinland Map. But the ink on the Vinland Map was not iron gall.
McCrone's theory was that a forger tried to simulate the browning effect of iron gall corrosion by overlaying a black ink on a yellow pigment. McCrone says that yellow pigment contains anatase, a modern synthetic, which can only mean the map is a forgery.
Cahill counters that he finds almost no titanium, an essential component of anatase. He concludes that anatase is not part of the ink, and the map may be real.
The debate on whether the Vinland Map is genuine or not seemed to be at a standstill, and the answer hinged on the composition of the ink. If the Vinland Map ink contains modern anatase, the map's a fake.
Can a new scientific technique resolve the debate about the ink once and for all?
In the summer of 2002, Professor Robin Clark and chemist Katherine Brown were invited to Yale to test the Vinland Map using a technique called Raman microprobe spectroscopy. Today, Katherine Brown demonstrates the technique at Maggs Brothers in London, one of the world's largest and oldest antiquarian book dealers.
KATHERINE BROWN: Raman microscopy is a scientific technique that uses lasers to identify materials. What happens is that a single colored laser light is focused on the material, on the surface. The materials themselves change that light and it comes out multicolored, which forms a spectrum. The spectrum that's produced is unique to the material that's producing it, so it acts as a fingerprint by which you can identify those materials.
NARRATOR: This 15th century manuscript has been illuminated, or colored, with a variety of pigments. The Raman microprobe identifies them all: red is vermilion, blue is lazurite, white is white lead. The ink itself is iron gall.
KATHERINE BROWN: Each molecule is different, and the spectrum that comes out is unique to each type of molecule. It's absolutely accurate. We either know what the material it is or we don't.
NARRATOR: Besides its extreme accuracy, this technique has an added benefit.
KATHERINE BROWN: Raman microprobe spectroscopy is particularly good for examining documents because it's non-invasive, it's non-destructive, so it causes no damage to the manuscript or document that you're examining, which is very important if it's valuable.
NARRATOR: It was the perfect technique to settle the debate on the authenticity of the most valuable map in the world. Brown and Clark shot their laser light at the Vinland Map.
ROBIN CLARK: In the Vinland Map, we confirmed that there was anatase on the yellowish-brown lines under the black. We could certainly detect that on the ink but not on the body of the map.
NARRATOR: The presence of anatase in the ink and not on the parchment, and the fact, already established by McCrone, that the anatase was synthetic could only mean one thing.
ROBIN CLARK: It wasn't something which could have fallen off the ceiling. It was deliberately placed as part of the ink. That confirmed absolutely what McCrone had found.
KATHERINE BROWN: The only conclusion that we could draw from the evidence that we saw is that the Vinland Map was produced sometime after about 1920.
NARRATOR: So what does all this evidence add up to? The lack of any other maps made by the Vikings, McCrone's findings that the ink on the Vinland Map contains synthetic anatase manufactured after 1917, and now Brown and Clark's confirmation.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN: To date, every conceivable test that could be done has been done, and the conclusion today is that the map is a fake.
KATHERINE BROWN: It's a modern forgery.
NARRATOR: But if the Vinland Map is a fake, who is the forger? Can science help solve another mystery at the heart of the Vinland Map story?
One man seems central, Italian book dealer Enzo Ferrajoli. It is through Ferrajoli that the Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation come together. And later it was revealed that Ferrajoli was involved in brokering the Speculum Historiale. Ferrajoli made Spain his adopted country, and it is there where important clues to the forgery can be found.
The Cathedral of La Seo, in the city of Saragossa, contains one of Spain's greatest libraries. In 1957, a scholar noticed that manuscripts he had previously consulted had disappeared. An investigation revealed that over a hundred priceless texts were missing. The police swiftly arrested their prime suspect, Enzo Ferrajoli.
At a special tribunal, the prosecution claimed that Ferrajoli had charmed the librarians, who allowed him to roam at will through their collection.
ELOY FERNÀNDEZ CLEMENTE: Apparently, Ferrajoli took away the books very slowly. Some he would borrow and wouldn't return. But other books, he would smuggle away hidden in newspapers, in a bag or a briefcase. And then, of course, the perfect system was to destroy the record cards, so nobody could ask for these books. The answer from the archivists was, "These books are not here because they don't appear in the index."
NARRATOR: Ferrajoli was convicted of the theft and sentenced to eight years and a day. He was released early due to ill health.
No one knows if the Tartar Relation and Speculum Historiale were among the documents stolen from Saragossa, but a new witness has come forward with even more incriminating evidence about Enzo Ferrajoli's past.
Diego Gómez Flores is a retired rare book dealer. He was born in France, but emigrated to Spain after World War II. Gomez first met Enzo Ferrajoli in Barcelona, and remembers a day in the mid-50s when Ferrajoli gave him a lift in his distinctive Fiat Topolino. Ferrajoli bragged that he had obtained the manuscript of the Tartar Relation and bound it together with a map.
DIEGO GÓMEZ FLORES (Rare book dealer): He said they had folded it and placed it in the binding. In order to pass it off as authentic, the map had to be bound in. So it was the form in which they were able to sell the book, as if the map was part of the book.
NARRATOR: Gómez's account suggests that the Vinland Map was originally a separate parchment and that Ferrajoli bound it together with the Tartar Relation to increase its value. But Gomez's recollection leaves one key question unanswered: where did Ferrajoli get the map?
Historian Kirsten Seaver has spent ten years scouring European archives, searching for the origins of the forgery.
KIRSTEN SEAVER: Once I was convinced that the map was a fake, I started looking at all the likely suspects in Europe. It had to be somebody with the right kind of knowledge, and I narrowed it down to one man.
NARRATOR: Seaver's research led her to believe that Father Joseph Fischer, an Austrian Jesuit priest, had the means, opportunity and motive to create such a masterpiece of deception. From 1895 to 1939, Fischer lived and taught at Austria's prestigious Stella Matutina, a college that attracted students from throughout Europe including Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Irish novelist James Joyce.
Fischer was an authority on world maps of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1902, he published a book professing a radical new theory, one that challenged 500 years of history. Father Fischer was the one of the first to propose that the Vikings were the true discoverers of America.
KIRSTEN SEAVER: Father Fischer certainly had a fondness for discovering maps that showed the first of something. He discovered the first map with the name America. He also believed that there was, of course, a Norse discovery of America and that the Norse had left a record of where they had been when they sailed to Vinland.
NARRATOR: Although Father Fischer never found such a map, Seaver has uncovered evidence that suggests he had the basic materials and equipment to create his own. His scholarly standing gave him access to blank parchment from medieval manuscripts; Fischer's father was a painter who could have taught him how to mix pigments to make ink look older.
Seaver has even discovered similarities between Fischer's handwriting and the text on the Vinland Map.
KIRSTEN SEAVER: There are two kinds of handwriting on the Vinland Map, both of them have enough pointers to Father Fischer to make it worth investigating on that alone.
NARRATOR: But what would have been Father Fischer's motivation? Seaver contends that Fischer believed so firmly that the Vikings discovered America that in the mid-1930s he set out to create the map that he thought should exist.
KIRSTEN SEAVER: He would not have looked upon it as falsifying the cartographic record. I also doubt very much that he made the map deliberately for others to see. I think it was an essentially a private exercise.
NARRATOR: But Father Fischer's private scholarship was about to collide with world history. For in 1938, German forces marched into Austria, seized Stella Matutina College, evicted the priests and confiscated everything of value including art, rare books and, Seaver believes, Father Fischer's Vinland Map.
Hitler's campaign of world conquest was fueled by a belief in an Aryan master race, embodied by Germans who traced their cultural roots to the Vikings. In the hands of the Nazis, the Vinland Map would be a historic claim to America and a powerful political weapon.
If Seaver is right, Father Fischer used his knowledge of ancient maps and Viking history to draw the Vinland Map on an authentic piece of medieval parchment. Fischer's Vinland Map was then confiscated by the Germans, and after their defeat, the map found it's way into the hands of known fascist and Nazi sympathizer, Enzo Ferrajoli. A first step in determining if Father Fischer was the actual forger is to see if the parchment on which the Vinland Map is drawn is medieval in origin.
One way to date parchment is by carbon-14 analysis. Since parchment is smoothed animal skin, this technique uses the regular decay of carbon atoms to arrive at a date within a probable range of accuracy. The only problem is the process destroys the sample. But Yale agreed to let a group of scientists under the direction of Garman Harbottle cut the smallest sliver from the map.
GARMAN HARBOTTLE: Here was this thing worth many millions of dollars. It was horribly unnerving. I was a nervous wreck during the time the thing was going on. I calculated later that the value of the piece we sliced off was forty or fifty thousand dollars and, of course, one doesn't do that lightly, one does it very carefully.
NARRATOR: Harbottle sliced a thin sliver from the map into six samples. The first sample tested dated to the 1950s. Thinking the modern date a mistake, perhaps due to contamination or a poor attempt at conservation, Harbottle's team cleaned off the surface of the remaining samples with acetone.
GARMAN HARBOTTLE: Acetone, which should have no effect on parchment at all, was extracting about 30 percent of the weight. In other words, the weight of the parchment was one third foreign matter. That's a lot, 30 percent.
NARRATOR: With the foreign matter removed, he then tested the remaining parchment samples. Instead of 1950, these dated to around 1440. Harbottle concluded that the Vinland Map was drawn on authentic medieval parchment. But other scientists were puzzled by the discrepancy.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN: When I first heard about the results from this, what I heard was crazy. One measurement had said that the map was modern and the other measurement had said that the map was old.
NARRATOR: What could account for such radically different test results? One possible answer is a crude attempt at conservation carried out in the 1950s. Another answer lies in a centuries old process for turning rough animal skin into finished parchment by adding a coating that provides a smooth writing surface.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN: Somebody took an old piece of parchment, dating back to 1440, stripped off the surface, and replaced it with a new surface.
NARRATOR: This new surface could explain why the first sample, which was not cleaned with acetone, dated to 1950. The body of the parchment is ancient but the surface is modern.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN: The map we see today was put down on the surface of the parchment and therefore we can only conclude that the map was put on the parchment since 1950.
NARRATOR: These findings suggest that a forger took an ancient parchment, resurfaced it in the 1950s, and, upon it, drew the infamous Vinland Map. If true, this would eliminate Father Fischer—who died in 1944—as a suspect. Ferrajoli remains at the center of the mystery, but any information he had about the identity of the forger went to the grave with him in 1966.
For nearly fifty years, the Vinland Map has been both celebrated and damned. When it first appeared, it challenged the gospel that Columbus discovered America and proclaimed the Vikings as the earliest Europeans to visit the New World. It's ironic that, even though the Vinland Map is most likely a fake, we now know, through archeological evidence, that the Vikings were the first. So why does the debate over the Vinland Map refuse to die?
GARMAN HARBOTTLE: The Vinland Map is still discussed as though it was a life and death matter. I think this is just a very natural human trait to argue over these things. I don't think the argument will ever stop.
ROBIN CLARK: I think it's all part of the scientific ethos, that we're interested in knowing answers to questions and finding out what's true and then dismissing speculation that is clearly not true.
MICHAEL HENCHMAN: Scientific data has shown that it's a fake. The scientists are just reluctant to accept it.
NARRATOR: Even now, new studies are underway, but it is unlikely they will settle the debate.
KATHERINE BROWN: Science doesn't really deal in truths. But science does deal in facts. How you choose to interpret those facts is up to you. Given the facts that we have seen with the Vinland Map, I conclude that it's a forgery; other people still disagree.
Next time on NOVA: "All men are created equal," words that embody the nation's ideals, are fading into invisibility. "There's hardly any ink left." Can science rescue them? "This is our one and only shot of getting this right." Saving the National Treasures.
On NOVA's Web site, examine the evidence yourself. Take a closer look at the entire map with its wormholes, faded ink and suspect handwriting. Find it on PBS.org.
To order this show, or any other NOVA program, for $19.95 plus shipping and handling, call WGBH Boston Video at 1-800-255-9424.
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The Viking Deception
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Vinland Map © Channel 4 MMIV
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