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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: http://www.webexhibits.org/vinland/?