The Vinland Map Controversy


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The Vikings, those seafaring warriors who terrorized half of Europe during the Middle Ages, were notorious for their ambitious voyages across the Atlantic.  They traveled farther west than any European before, colonizing Iceland and Greenland.  And it has long been believed that they also reached the northeast coast of North America.  The Viking sagas that were passed down over the centuries told the tale of Leif Erikson founding the colony of Vinland in modern-day Newfoundland and Labrador.  For many years, though, there was no proof to support this claim.

Then, in 1960, the archeological remains of a Norse village were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows on the Northern tip of Newfoundland.  Dating to the year 1000 AD, the dwelling structures that were uncovered at the site strongly resembled dwellings found in other Viking colonies from the same time period.  This seems to confirm that the Vikings had in fact reached America 500 years before Columbus.

While this site was being excavated, another discovery from a far different source was causing historians to come to the same conclusion: The Vinland Map.  It surfaced in 1957 when a London book dealer offered it for sale within a volume of medieval text to the British Museum.  They rejected it, and the map eventually wound up at Yale University, where it remains to this day.  The first researchers to look upon it were treated to a fascinating view of the world: A pre-columbian depiction of part of the American continent through Viking eyes.  It is purportedly a 15th century reproduction of a 13th century original, meaning that it was made after the Vikings founded Vinland, but before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

The caption in the upper left reads: “By God’s will, after a long voyage from the island of Greenland to the south toward the most distant remaining parts of the western ocean sea, sailing southward amidst the ice, the companions Bjarni and Leif riksson discovered a new land, extremely fertile and even having vines, … which island they named Vinland.”

This cartographic bombshell, however, may be too good to be true.  Almost immediately, it began to attract controversy from skeptical scientists.  Many chemical analysis has found that the ink used in the map was modern, although some historians have tried to come up with alternative explanations for how the chemicals from modern ink may have gotten into genuine medieval ink.  Radiocarbon dating has determined that the parchment itself dates to the mid-15th century, further confusing the matter.  Finally, historians have analyzed the content as well, expressing skepticism that Viking explorers from this time period would, for example, draw Greenland as an island, when it had not been completely circumnavigated until the 20th century.

The debate rages on and, quite frankly, a lot of the chemical analysis arguments go right over my head. We may never know for certain if this map is a genuine medieval depiction of exploration of America, or just a modern forgery. But the fact that this artifact has generated such extended academic debate over its authenticity just underscores, once again, the historical significance we attribute to maps.

For more on the controversy, go here:

Who Needs Paper? The Micronesians Made Maps of Shells and Palm Fronds


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Continuing this year’s goal of looking at maps from a more diverse range of peoples, today I wanted to feature the Micronesian style of cartography.

Micronesia is a collection of over 2,000 islands in the South Pacific, covering almost three million square miles of ocean.  It was settled thousands of years ago, and came into contact with European explorers in the 16th century. The islands were soon colonized by the European empires, which began importing Western technology to the tribal societies. But one piece of technology was already in Micronesia long before the Europeans came: the map.

The Micronesian map does not look anything like the Western style of map.  It is made of palm fronds and shells, with shells representing islands, and fronds representing the quickest route to sail between two islands.  More commonly called stick charts, or rebbillib in Marshallese, these maps were used by sailors to travel from island to island, but not in the way you might think.  The sailors were able to study the maps before their trip, commit the routes to memory, and then lay on their backs on the canoe, feeling the swell of the ocean currents in order to measure the distance of their journeys.

Here is one stick chart showing all the islands of the Marshall Islands chain, which is part of Micronesia:

Micronesia Stick Chart of the Marshall Islands (via

And below, you can see how the stick chart relates to the Western-style map of the Marshall Islands.

Just goes to show that maps can come in many forms, and they can all serve a purpose. European explorers may have created rich, elaborate maps, but they often turned out to be full of errors, exaggerations, and mythical beasts. Sometimes the simplest maps work best for getting where you need to go.

Sources: ;

Cartographer’s Bane: More of the Strangest Borders in the World


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International borders run the gamut from straight and simple, to jagged and complex, to downright convoluted and nonsensical.  In an earlier post, we looked at some of the most complicated borders in the world, thanks to a YouTube clip by the WonderWhy channel. The video showcased several unusual demarcations between countries, but also explained the historical reasons for them.  The justifications don’t make the work of the poor cartographer any easier, but it at least they provide some fun trivia in case you ever find yourself having to explain why, for example, a confusing set of angular enclaves and exclaves are scattered along the border between India and Bangladesh.

Now that video has a sequel, and the strange borders are back with a vengeance.

This time around, we learn about the borders between Armenia and Azerbaijan, each of which technically have exclaves within the other country.  Confusing matters further is the existence of a semi-autonomous region within Azerbaijan (named Nagorno-Karabakh) which claims independence but is not recognized as independent by most other countries in the world.

Map of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic, via Wikipedia.  The historical area of Nagorno-Karabakh is shown in dark brown, but the yellow territory is effectively part of it as well, since it is currently occupied by Armenia, which provides support to the small semi-autonomous Republic. It’s a complicated arrangement.

The video also touches on some tiny house-sized exclaves of Germany that exist within Belgium and Switzerland, the line of control between India and Pakistan through the disputed region of Kashmir, and the border dispute between Croatia and Serbia due to the movement of the River Danube over time, which results in the strange situation that some areas are claimed by both countries, while other areas are claimed by neither.  Check out the video for the full story.

Happy mapping!

Medieval Sea Monsters Come to Life


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Maps from the Medieval and Renaissance eras are rife with strange, mythological sea creatures.  During this time period, of course, these creatures were not considered myths.  European sailors really did fear that dangerous beasts patrolled the oceans, ready to attack their ships and send them down to the briny deep.  Cartographers peppered these creatures across their maps, warning would-be explorers against the perils that awaited them, or perhaps just adding some much-needed flair to an otherwise boring expanse of ocean.

Here is just one example of such a map from the Renaissance.  The Atlantic Ocean here is practically bursting with vicious sea creatures:

Portion of Olaus Magnus’s “Carta Marina”, originally created in 1539, via

The monsters in the above map, from 1539, were possibly intended to discourage travelers from entering Scandinavian waters.  The beasts are identified and described in Latin.  Some of them are actually real; the “ballena” in the lower left is a whale.  But the odd creature in the lower middle named Ziphius, which looks like a whale with a bird-face, is quite fake.

Although these sea monsters have disappeared from the maps, they have not disappeared completely from our imaginations.  One map-loving artist in Toronto, Bailey Henderson, used these mythological creatures as inspiration for a series of beautifully grotesque sculptures.

Below are just a few of her creations. The first is our good old friend the Ziphius.  Following that is the cockatrice, which is like a rooster with a very long tail that can breathe fire.  Finally, Henderson created a pinniped, which is like a cross between a dog, a seal, and a pig.  Pretty creepy stuff that I would hate to encounter on the open sea, but fun to look at from the comfort of my living room.

For more on Henderson’s creations, go here:

Lewis Carroll, and the Meaning of Meaningless Words


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January 27th is British author Lewis Carroll’s birthday.  Born in 1832, Carroll is best known for writing “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass”.  His well-regarded writing style is certainly unique, employing clever word play and fantastical descriptions.

What most draws me to him, though, is his usage of nonsense language.  Carroll had the remarkable ability to make up a word seemingly out of thin air, and yet have that word’s meaning be almost instinctively known by the reader.  His great talent for language shows that the meaning we ascribe to a word depends much on the sound of that word and the context in which that word appears.

Even more remarkably, some of the meaningless words that Carroll created would actually become real words.  The best example is “chortle”, which is a combination of “chuckle” and “snort”.  I have chortled from time to time, and I’m sure most of you have as well.  Carroll realized that chortling was a common, though undefined, human activity, and all he had to do was put a name on it.

My favorite work of his, a wonderful example of literary nonsense, is a short poem entitled, “Jabberwock”:

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought—
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.

‘Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

It’s one of my favorite poems to recite, even if (perhaps because) half the words are nonsense.  In seven short stanzas, the poem tells a complete story.  First we are introduced to the Jabberwock, a dangerous monster with jaws and claws.  The beast is quickly slain by our nameless hero with a “vorpal blade”.  Finally, there is celebration (“Callooh! Callay!”).

The poem’s whimsical, lyrical cadence really make the story sing.  Sure it is the story of a man slicing off the head of a mythical monster, but it is also so much more.  Using onomatopoeia, colorful words, and old English phrases, Carroll really paints a picture of another, much more fantastical world.  From the very first lines, one is transported to a world of strange creatures (such as “toves”) doing strange things (“gyre and gimble”), and confusion only spurs the reader to delve deeper into the strangeness.

Let’s look at just a few of these strange words.  According to the Humpty Dumpty character who comments on the poem after it is read within “Through the Looking Glass”, “brillig” means 4:00pm, the time of day when you start broiling things for dinner.  A “slithy tove” I might guess to be a “slimy toad” from the sound of it.  Humpty Dumpty explains that “slithy” means both lithe and slimy, and “tove” is actually something like a badger.  And then there are words for which there are no definitive explanations.  For example, Carroll himself claims not to know the source of “tulgey” or “vorpal”, but thoughtful fans have proposed their own definitions.  The wikipedia article, which is several times longer than the poem itself, contains explanations and possible meanings for every one of Lewis’s creations.

And what of the Jabberwock itself?  What exactly is this monster, and where did it come from?  The only description we have is that the Jabberwock has claws that catch, jaws that bite, and eyes of flame.  John Tanniel illustrated the creature for the book, and his drawing is reproduced below.  It appears much like an oversize, long-necked pterodactyl.  As for the name itself, Carroll has stated that “The Anglo-Saxon word ‘wocer’ or ‘wocor’ signifies ‘offspring’ or ‘fruit’. Taking ‘jabber’ in its ordinary acceptation of ‘excited and voluble discussion’, this would give the meaning of ‘the result of much excited and voluble discussion’…”  Therefore, a more modern name for the Jabberwock might be something like Notorious.

The Jabberwock, as illustrated by John Tenniel (via Wikipedia)

You can still find many references to the poem in media today.  I always chortle when I see a vorpal blade show up in a videogame, such as World of Warcraft.  Not all of Carroll’s created words have staying power, but it is never too late for anyone to start using them.  The beauty of language is that it is always evolving, and any word which was once new and lacking meaning can someday become a part of the lexicon.

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll, and I sure hope it’s a frabjous one!

The Five Strangest Maps Inspired by Game of Thrones


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If you’re anything like me, the start of season 5 of Game of Thrones on April 12 simply cannot come soon enough.  However, I have a temporary solution.  If you too can’t wait to see our heroes/villains battle across Westeros once again, then please join in me in nerding out over some maps.

In a previous post, we looked at a map of Westeros that showed the political boundaries of the various kingdoms and dynasties that controlled the continent.  However, if you keep digging online, you’ll uncover some rather unique creations by the many loyal fans of the books and tv show.  Here I have assembled the five oddest maps I found.  Some of them depict Westeros in a completely different artistic style, and others bring the locations (and atmosphere) of Westeros to the real world.  Let’s take a look!

1. A Disney Version of Westeros

Westeros is a dark, violent place where no character is ever truly safe from peril.  But what if it wasn’t?  This map illustrates Westeros in the style of Mary Blair, who drew many of the classic cartoon Disney movies, such as Peter Pan.  Now there’s a world I’d like to live in.  Even the moon door at The Eyrie looks inviting!

2. Super Mario World Style

If you came of age in the 1990s, the above map is sure to fill you with nostalgia for the classic videogame Super Mario World.  One inventive reddit user rearranged the topography of that world to resemble Westeros.  He did a really great job, and I can recognize all the familiar locations (such as The Twins and Harrenhal) from the sprites he used. Now if only the White Walkers would turn around when you looked at them, like the boos from the Mario game, the Night’s Watch would be all set.

3. The Sports Map of Westeros

Sports and nerdiness together at last!  I must confess that I do not follow sports that closely, so I don’t get half of these references, but it is funny to see the territory beyond The Wall referred to as The Land of Always Hockey.

4. The United States of Westeros

The United States are converted into Westeros in the map above.  Some of the locations make perfect sense, like Casterly Rock being New York City while Washington, DC is King’s Landing.  Others seem like odd choices, but the post on College Humor has an explanation for each one.  For example, Qarth is Savannah, Georgia, because it is “a wealthy port city, the inhabitants think that it’s the greatest city that ever was or will be, and yet no one outside the city cares. Filled with many rich creepy people.”  (Keep in mind that this is College Humor, so everything is a little tongue in cheek.)

5. West New Jerseros

Finally, we find ourselves (inevitably, as always) in New Jersey.  A fan of the series created this map of “West New Jerseros” after Peter Dinklage jokingly stated in an interview that the show was filmed in Jersey.  It actually sort of works, although I’m not sure that the Jersey Shore is really the seat of political power like King’s Landing is.

Hope you enjoyed the maps as much as I did!  And remember: Spring is coming, and with it, a new season of Game of Thrones!

United States of Pavement


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Draw a map of the United States with every physical feature removed except for the roads, and you would be surprised how familiar the country still looks.  Four million miles of pavement cover this giant nation, but they are not distributed evenly.  In urban areas, the roads are so dense that they create a dark blob, with sinewy webs representing highways radiating outward.  But many thousands of square miles also lay bare, showing the presence of mountains, forests, and lakes.  The important role roads play in the US becomes clears as you look upon the map and see how the urban centers and main topographical features of the country stand out.

This map was created by the design firm Fathom, and comes to us courtesy of Fast Company.  The firm also created a map for each of the fifty states.  It is fascinating to examine each one and see how the features of the state are reflected in the outline of the roads.

Here’s my home state of Connecticut.  It is pretty filled up with roads, though there are some very large, empty areas outside of Fairfield County and the Greater Hartford Area.

Map of Connecticut Roads (via Fast Company)

Next is New York.  See how dense it is in New York City and Long Island.  The large open areas upstate represent the Adirondacks and Catskills.

Map of New York Roads (via Fast Company)

Finally, I want to show the map of Colorado.  In the east, the terrain is still flat, and the roads follow a grid.  However, the western side is mountainous, and the roads become sparser and curvier.   I don’t even have to know where Denver is to guess that it’s at the center of the massive black blob in the top-middle of the state.

Map of Colorado Roads (via Fast Company)

They have a map for every state at the link below.  How does your state look?  What other interesting features can you find?


The Catawba Deerskin Map: A Rare Example of Native American Cartography


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This year I would like to explore more unusual methods of mapmaking by a more diverse group of creators.  Throughout history, maps by powerful nations and empires have proliferated, but maps by the less powerful actors, if they exist at all, are seldom seen.  In this way, we have come to see the world through the eyes of the conquerors, but almost never through the eyes of the conquered.

In the interest of opening our eyes to new perspectives, I want to share a unique Native American map I discovered while flipping through one of the map books I received for Christmas (yes, I got more than one).  This map was drawn up by a chieftain of the Catawba tribe that resided in what would become the Southeastern United States.  At the time of the map’s creation in 1721, though, this land was being colonized by the British.  The British settlements hugged the Eastern seaboard, while the Native American tribes held territory further inland.  As the years passed, the British (and later on, the Americans) clashed with the tribes and pushed them further and further west.

But that is a story for another time.  For today, let’s take a look at the map, which the chieftain drew on a piece of deerskin at the request of Francis Nicholson, the colonial governor of South Carolina.  It shows the location of the neighboring tribes outside of South Carolina.

Photograph of the Catawba deerskin map given to South Carolina colonial Governor Francis Nicholson in 1721. (Copy available from Library of Congress, and original on file with the British Museum) (via

On the left is the city of Charlestown, and to the right are several circles which indicate the tribes in relation to each other.  I do not recognize most of the names, but I do see “Cherrikies”, for the large Cherokee tribe that resided in the area.  The map also contains some illustrations, such as that of an Indian on a hunt outside Charlestown.  This is certainly a new perspective compared to most maps of colonial settlements in this time period, which show the boundaries of the colonies but neglect to mention the tribes that had been living there for centuries.

An article I read on the WBEZ Chicago website provided an interesting insight into how this map reveals the difference between Native American and Western mapmaking.  Apparently, the two cultures had very different ideas on how to represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane.  The article cites Bob Morrissey, a professor of history at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana, who explained that for Native American maps, “rather than a picture or representation of the land, it’s a picture or representation of people on the land. . . . Their positions relative to one another matter as much as their positions relative to the physical space.”  To Western eyes, a Native American map might be hard to read because it doesn’t have many frames of reference, but to the mapmakers, it showed all the information it needed to.

For more on this map, and others, check out that article here ( or the Library of Congress page (

Happy mapping!

The Top Five Blog Posts of the Year


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‘Tis the season for posting year-end lists!  2014 was quite a year for the Petros Jordan blog, as readership remained strong, and we expanded our scope to include such areas as book reviews, television analysis, and ever more unusual forms of cartography.  Here are the five most popular blog posts of the year:

1.  A Game of Thrones Conundrum: Should you Read the Books after Watching the TV Show?

With over 1300 views, this post was the most popular one published this year.  For those wondering, I’ve concluded that the answer is a resounding YES.  I am currently in book 3 of the series and greatly enjoying it, even after I have watched all seasons of the show.

2.  20 Ways to Split Europe.

20 Ways to Slice Europe (From “Atlas of Prejudice 2″, by Yanko Tsvetkov, via

Humor and cartography were a potent combination with this post, as we learned to laugh at the many stereotypical divisions that cut through the European continent.

3.  Community: Introduction to Advanced Television.

The popularity of this post indicates the level of devotion that the groundbreaking, hilarious show Community enjoys.  After its cancellation by NBC, the fans began such a persistent online campaign for renewal, that it was finally picked up for a sixth season on Yahoo Screen.  New episodes will begin premiering some time in early 2015.

4.  The Flow of Time and Calendar Design.

In this post, we saw how calendars need not follow the same staid format, and the flow of time in fact can be represented in a multitude of unique ways.

5.  Why Do So Many Fantasy Maps Share This Feature?

Any good fantasy writer has to grapple with worldbuilding and cartography.  How does one make a fantasy realm that stands out among the crowd?  Well, for one, you may want to avoid having the ocean on the left and the land on the right, because that’s how the majority of fantasy worlds have been structured.  But why is that?  Well, you have to read the post to find out!

Here’s to another productive year!  Stay tuned for more maps, fantasy, writing, and who knows what else in 2015!

On Google Maps, The Colbert Report Lives On


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This past week, Stephen Colbert sat behind his desk on the set of the Colbert Report for the very last time.  After nine years, the hilarious satirical news show has ended so that Colbert can take over David Letterman’s job on CBS’s The Late Show.  Colbert’s final episode was hilarious, as always, but also very touching, as a star-studded group of dozens of actors, politicians, journalists, and Sesame Street characters joined him on stage to sing “We’ll Meet Again.”

What made the goodbye especially bittersweet was the fact that Colbert has essentially been playing a character for the past nine years, and when he begins hosting The Late Show, he’ll be his normal self again.  Of course, Colbert is charismatic and witty whether playing a role or not, but I will definitely miss his lovable ultra-conservative blowhard persona.  The character of Colbert was truly unique in television history, and that uniqueness also extended to his environment.  I will miss not seeing the ridiculous opening graphics again, with the digital eagle that swoops toward the viewer before the camera pans down to Colbert at his familiar blue-and-red desk and the audience erupts with applause.

However, we can still experience the iconic Colbert Report studio, even if Colbert never sits behind that desk again, because the whole studio has been added to Google Maps!

Check it out for yourself here:,-73.9908592,3a,75y,16.52h,61.76t/data=!3m5!1e1!3m3!1scKoGoRNdA9gAAAQfCRUiTg!2e0!3e2?hl=en-GB

Now, in much the same way that you can explore a city street, you can explore the inside of the Colbert studio, including the bookshelf with all of its odd memorabilia, and the portrait of Colbert above the fireplace, in front of another portrait of Colbert, in front of another portrait… and so on, ad infinitum.  You can also position yourself behind Colbert’s desk, look out at the audience and soak up some of that over-inflated ego which he so often projected.

And are you curious about the story behind some of the memorabilia on the walls and bookcase?  The show also created an interactive tour which explains some background information on these items here:  For example, did you know that Captain America himself bequeathed his shield to Colbert?

Thanks to digital cartography, people now have the luxury of exploring both outside and inside places that they may never have the chance to visit in real life.  With the Colbert Report over, the studio will be dismantled, the audience will never return, and the desk is being given away to one lucky fan.  But the studio as will always live on, on Google Maps and in our hearts.


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