In the fall of 1957, rare manuscript dealer Laurence Claiborne Witten II, of New Haven, Connecticut, stumbled upon the cartographic find of the century. He was browsing in the antiquarian shop of Nicolas Rauch, a rarities dealer in Geneva, when he discovered two vellum documents bound together which appeared properly ancient and highly intriguing. One was a map and one was a text, both on old vellum, and both incorporating seemingly authentic pigments, watermarks, wormholes, and symbols. The bound volume seemed to date from 1430 to 1450. The map displayed the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. It also included Greenland and portions of the coastline of Canadian North America which were startlingly accurate for the time period. And beyond this – the map indicated that Vikings had in fact visited that Canadian coastline between 985 and 1001. If the map were authentic, it would topple Italian Christopher Columbus’ claim to fame as the discoverer of the new world.
That little word “if” developed into a decades-long quest, drawing in all manner of experts in the field of geography, cartography, and ancient documents. Big guns from Yale University and the British Museum and many other research facilities have weighed in over the years. The map came to be known as the Vinland Map, since the Vikings had coined that name for the farthest reaches of their explorations to North American shores.
Simon Garfield gives us a lively view into the discovery of and controversy surrounding the Vinland Map in his delicious collection of geographic tales, On the Map. He translates the highly technical and esoteric investigations of the map into an accessible whodunit, charting the course of ups and downs, excitement and disappointment, thrills and chills. Debate on the provenance and meaning of the map continues. The bottom line? it’s all in the ink, and the experts don’t agree.
Who discovered America First? Columbus? Leif/Erik/Ragnar? I know, I know – my hand’s in the air! It was the ancestors of the Inuits who crossed the (now-submerged) land bridge from Siberia millennia ago.