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TV Program Description
Original PBS Broadcast Date: February 8, 2005


Viking Deception homepage

On the eve of Columbus Day, 1965, Yale University announced the acquisition of a previously unknown map that showed a large island labeled "Vinland" in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. The map supposedly dated from about 1440, half a century before Columbus made his first voyage to America. Was this proof that the Vikings discovered the New World and that perhaps their knowledge guided Columbus? NOVA weighs the evidence on "The Viking Deception."

Behind the map's wrinkled parchment and faded ink lies a tale of ancient explorers, learned priests, shady book dealers, skeptical scholars, and dueling scientists. In the four decades since its public debut, the Vinland Map has been tested and retested. Many experts are convinced it is a fake, but others just as fervently think it's genuine. Some of the world's foremost authorities on the subject help NOVA sort out the issues.

Historian Kirsten Seaver, author of Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vinland Map, provides background on the Vikings as well as the mysterious events surrounding the appearance of the map. Scientists Anna Teetsov of McCrone Associates, Inc., Thomas Cahill of the University of California, Davis, and Robin Clark and Katherine Brown of University College London discuss their independent tests of the ink, which is unlike any known ink used in a medieval manuscript and appears to consist of two differently pigmented layers. (To examine the Vinland Map up close, see The Map in Question.)

Art historian and calligrapher Brody Neuenschwander illustrates the methods and materials used by medieval scribes—a key piece of evidence in interpreting the conflicting data on the ink. Also participating are Paul Saenger, Curator of Rare Books at the Newberry Library, Michael Henchman, Professor of Chemistry at Brandeis University, and others.

The story of the Vinland Map began in 1957 when two book dealers, including an Italian named Enzo Ferrajoli, approached the British Museum with an intriguing medieval manuscript that contained an astonishing map. The curator in charge was suspicious, especially since Ferrajoli would not reveal anything about the map's prior history.

Ferrajoli had better luck with a young American dealer named Laurence Witten, who bought the map and the accompanying manuscript for $3,500 and then set about authenticating it before offering it to his alma mater, Yale University. Witten's proof of the map's authenticity was based on a chance discovery: the wormholes on the map exactly match those in a completely different manuscript that came to Witten's attention. This proved that the map and the manuscript were once bound together, presumably for a considerable period of time. Since the manuscript could be confidently dated to the mid-15th century, the map could be as well.

Yale alumnus Paul Mellon then purchased the map and the manuscripts for an undisclosed sum of money, reportedly hundreds of thousands of dollars, and donated the material to the university. On October 11, 1965, the Vinland Map was finally announced to the world. Then the trouble began.

One problem was that Mellon had insisted that the map be kept a secret while a scholarly volume was prepared to coincide with the announcement. This prevented all but a handful of experts from evaluating the material. A more serious problem arose in 1974 when chemist Walter McCrone reported that tests showed the map's ink contained a 20th-century synthetic chemical. In 1987, chemist Thomas Cahill challenged McCrone's finding. But in 2002 chemists Robin Clark and Katherine Brown refuted Cahill.

The case for forgery has been further bolstered by recent radioactive carbon tests suggesting that the map was probably interfered with during the period of extensive nuclear testing in the early 1950s. (To see genuine medieval maps that the counterfeiter likely drew from, see The Forger's Inspiration.)

Adding up all the scientific evidence, the verdict is clear: beyond all reasonable doubt, the Vinland Map is a fake. But where did it come from? NOVA traces the background of Ferrajoli, the first recorded seller of the map, whose shady dealings lead into a fascinating labyrinth of scholarly skullduggery and political intrigue.

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Vinland Map

Is the Vinland Map real or a first-rate forgery?




The Viking Deception
The Forger's Inspiration

The Forger's Inspiration
Early maps and tales likely influenced the Vinland Map's author.

Who Were the Vikings?

Who Were the Vikings?
William Fitzhugh reveals what drove the Vikings.

The Map in Question

The Map in Question
Is it authentic? Examine the entire map and decide for yourself.

Famous Fakes

Famous Fakes
Hitler's diaries, Howard Hughes's autobiography—see other famous forgeries.



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