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The Forger's Inspiration
by Evan Hadingham


Viking Deception homepage

Ever since its sensational unveiling by Yale University scholars in October 1965, the Vinland Map has been a lightning rod for passionate debate. Most reviews of the arguments, including NOVA's program, have focused on scientific tests designed to gauge the authenticity of the map's ink. The opinions of experts in cartography and historical manuscripts have commanded much less attention, yet from the outset scholars in these disciplines pointed out glaring anomalies in the case for the Vinland Map's authenticity. (To inspect the map, see The Map in Question.)

Most striking of all, the coasts of Greenland and Iceland are suspiciously close to their outlines in a modern atlas. Yet none of the Icelandic sagas identifies Greenland as an island, and archeological discoveries indicate that Viking colonists, hunters, and traders explored Greenland's west coast perhaps as far north as Thule and Cape York, but no farther. Even a century or two after the supposed date of the Vinland Map, European mapmakers were still divided about how to draw Greenland—as an island, part of an arctic landmass, or a peninsula dangling down from northern Europe. The precision of the outlines of Greenland and Iceland is all the more surprising when compared to the Vinland Map's depiction of the Viking homelands in Scandinavia, which are barely recognizable: Sweden has migrated to the wrong side of the Baltic while Norway has been flipped to match the map's overall egg-shaped design.

Did the Vikings make maps?

Could the accuracy of the Vinland Map be testimony to the Vikings' extraordinary seamanship and mapmaking skills? Did the alleged medieval author of the map use an earlier Viking map as a source of information? Unquestionably, the Vikings were the most audacious and accomplished voyagers of the medieval world. Their sleek, clinker-built longships and bulkier cargo boats had reached Iceland during the 9th century A.D. and Greenland during the 10th, leading to permanent colonies and regular trade with the Scandinavian homelands. Beginning in 1961, the excavation of longhouses and typical Norse artifacts at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland proved that Greenland settlers had reached North America, just as the tales of Vinland in the Icelandic sagas had always claimed.

Few historians seriously consider an argument based on missing evidence.

Such far-flung voyages of discovery demanded special navigation skills. An Icelandic codex known as Hauksbok details signs such as the appearance of whales, seabirds, and distant mountain peaks that voyagers would watch for as they crossed the open ocean. Viking sailors may also have developed simple astronomical aids, such as steering by the sun or the Pole Star, although there is no firm evidence for these practices. But however accomplished their seamanship, the Vikings never seem to have charted the coastlines they explored. Despite the detailed navigational texts and abundant geographical references in the sagas, no Norse cartographic drawing or engraving has survived. They don't appear to have been mapmakers at all.

The colorful Icelandic tales of Leif Eriksson and his followers did inspire European mapmakers to create North American charts identifying features mentioned in the stories, such as Markland, Helluland, and Vinland. But this interest in the sagas only took off during the 16th and 17th centuries—long after the purported mid-15th-century date of the Vinland Map. Beginning around 1570, Protestant mapmakers began incorporating new knowledge of the Americas based on pioneering Portuguese and English voyages of discovery. A strong motive for documenting the earlier Norse traditions of settlement was to repudiate Catholic maps and territorial claims defined by papal treaties. But even the most detailed of these maps, such as the Resen Map of 1605, appears to have been mainly an exercise in fantasy.

Missing evidence

One prominent cartographer did vigorously defend the Vinland Map—R. A. Skelton, superintendent of the British Museum's map room, who devoted seven years to vindicating the map for Yale's 1965 publication. The map convinced Skelton that news of Norse colonizing activities must have somehow reached medieval European mapmakers and influenced their depiction of the world. To explain why it was so unlike other medieval worldviews, Skelton was forced to hypothesize the existence of an earlier missing chart, which had been poorly copied by the author of the Vinland Map. But few historians seriously consider an argument based on missing evidence.

Assuming the map is a fake, its perpetrator had several likely sources of inspiration. The African and Asian continents resemble those on a pioneering map drawn up in 1436 by a Venetian sailor, Andrea Bianco. Although the Bianco Map portrays the world more realistically than previous medieval examples, it shows no hint of Iceland, Greenland, or any major landmass west of the British Isles.

The mystery island

For the depiction of Vinland, the forger apparently turned to two landmark Portuguese maps, one largely copied from the other, dating to 1502-1505. The celebrated Cantino and Canerio maps incorporate the discoveries of the Corte-Real brothers, Portuguese explorers who made two voyages to Greenland and Newfoundland in 1500 and 1501. The explorers claimed these lands for the Portuguese crown and had no idea that the Norse had preceded them.

The map was a clever blending of influences, but not clever enough to cover up its false origin.

Canerio's map shows Portuguese flags planted on Greenland and on what cartographers have come to refer to as the "mystery island," situated in the mid-Atlantic. The inscription on the Canerio Map links the mystery island with the Corte-Real brothers, and it may, in fact, represent Newfoundland, shifted to the mid-Atlantic for political reasons. A papal treaty had established a boundary line in the Atlantic to demarcate Spanish and Portuguese territorial claims, so moving Newfoundland closer to Europe may have been intended to strengthen the Portuguese claim on its discovery.

Whatever the explanation of the mystery island on the two Portuguese maps, its roughly similar size and position as "Vinilanda Insula" on the Vinland Map is an important clue. The Cantino and Canerio maps date to some 60 years after the supposed date of the Vinland Map, adding to the evidence that the Vinland Map is a fake. It seems that the forger turned to the mystery island as a model for Vinland, while the Bianco Map helped fill in Asia and Africa.

None of the three old maps that seem to have inspired the Vinland forger were widely known or available for study until the 20th century. Whenever the map was concocted—and whoever did it—it was a clever blending of influences, but like the ink recipe, not clever enough to cover up telltale traces of its false origin.

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Viking boat

Ocean-faring vessels like this longship replica allowed the Norse to venture far across the Atlantic and helped spawn the Viking Age.

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Resen map

A map made in 1605 by Bishop Resen of Iceland used geographic names from the Vinland Sagas to stake a claim to the New World. The map shown here is an 1884 copy.

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Bianco map

The Bianco Map of 1436, drawn near the time of the alleged creation of the Vinland Map, was likely used as a template by the Vinland Map's forger.

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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.



Evan Hadingham is senior science editor of NOVA.



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